Last month, a news that attracted attention was “the government was open to proposing flexibility in working days with a cap on total hours at 48”.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows a person should not work more than 12 hours (4 days x 12 hours = 48 hours). Simple one would think, as currently the work week is usually of five-six days.

The issue of flexibility in working days is being discussed as part of the rules for the new Labour Codes.

“The government is only a facilitator. It is between the employer and the employee on how they want to use this flexible hour option. It has to be by mutual consent,” said Labour Secretary Apurva Chandra.

The draft Rules for Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code says no worker will be required or allowed to work in an establishment for more than 48 hours in a week.

Also, the period of work shall be inclusive of intervals for rest, and shall not exceed 12 hours in a day. The government is also of the view that if a company offers a four-day work-week, then the remaining three days should be paid offs. The questions that crop up are: How does it help? Does it increase productivity? How will it work across the sectors?

To this, Amarjeet Kaur, General Secretary, All India Trade Union Congress, points out that this is for only a minuscule section of the labour force, particularly those in the IT sector. “We must remember that wage is calculated depending on working hours or output. So, how will this work? Working hours have actually increased for a vast majority of the workforce. By saying it is between employer and the employee, the government is washing its hands away.”

Will productivity rise?

According to Pankaj Bansal, Group CEO, PeopleStrong Technologies, an HR and workforce technology company, “while that’s the maximum limit, most companies should follow a healthy practice of having nine hours work limit (4 x 9 = 36 hours).”

”According to a WHO report, depression and anxiety cost over a trillion dollars in productivity-loss to the world economy... Stress-free employees are far more productive. It also reduces carbon footprint. While the government has provisioned for a cap at 48 hours, I recommend 36 productive hours spread over four days should suffice for any organisation. A list of benefits for a four-day work-week can go on and on,” Bansal said.

Says V Kalyan Kumar, Head - Human Resources, Sembcorp Energy India Ltd, “Depending on the sector, the benefits can outweigh the disruption. Employers can use this provision to improve labour productivity by optimising the work contribution of employees. While fewer employees may be required to accomplish the same work due to reduced number of workdays while keeping the weekly number of working hours the same, it will also aid in boosting earning capacity of employees. Employees’ earning potential would also increase due to their higher productivity and flexibility to offer their services to multiple employers depending on the nature of employment contract.”

According to Nitin Sethi, India & South Asia CEO, Performance, Rewards & Talent Consulting Business, Aon, “At the moment, very few companies have started thinking about what this would mean. Work from home (WFH) and work from anywhere (WfA) have been an experiment that seems to have worked in most places and companies have realised that not number of hours or days, but focussing on output and providing the right tools are helping them drive better results and create a bigger impact. So, at the moment, it’s not about counting hours and days at work.”

He says that given the changed environment, the feedback is that an overwhelming number of companies feel that people in general are working longer hours to get the same output.

“When do we get back to work on a full-time basis depends on the vaccine drive, readiness of office infrastructure to work in the new environment and a bunch of other things. Most of 2021 is going to be hybrid concept — a largely work-from- home arrangement. Now having said that I think most of the companies do also realise, and I think this realisation has come over the last decade or so that not necessarily working longer hours mean increase in workforce productivity. I think there is an optimal level at which productivity happens and I think in that sense it doesn’t really mean anything making people work longer hours,” he adds.

“If you look at industrialised countries, the number of hours at work every year over a period of time has actually decreased. It doesn’t mean productivity has decreased. This is because of better use of technology, tools and increase in workforce capability. The net result is productivity has actually increased. So I don’t think this has got to do with productivity,” he points out.

Workforce management

“I hear many people saying that potentially making people work for 48 hours and then giving a three-day break will mean more workforce engagement, but I think most mature companies are of view that engagement is not the outcome of either number of holidays you get or even sometimes compensation — but overall culture of the organisation,” Sethi said.

Engagement is more a factor of the culture of an organisation, the work you do, growth opportunity in the long run and the manager or leader you work with, he points out. “So in that context I think that’s where companies are at the moment. But I think any amount of flexibility is welcome. You know, to some companies in some sectors it will provide a window to plan work better, do things differently. But are companies looking at this to say productivity, cost-effectiveness, cost-management, I think the answer to that is an overwhelming ‘No’, say Sethi.

At the end of the day, it is between the employer and the employee, and measuring productivity can be subjective. Till the rules are out and concept tested on the ground, it will remain a debate.