Ramadan is about to start in the Muslim world. This is a very important time for all Muslims and, in the GCC, affects every organisation and every person. Businesses often believe it is associated with a slowing down of operations, fewer hours worked and general loss of effectiveness.
Professor William Scott-Jackson, a British academic who is an authority on leadership and management in the Middle East, and Chairman of Oxford Strategic Consulting, gives a more balanced perspective on the subject.
“Fasting and contemplation should be respected by everyone, even if they are not Muslims themselves, and the GCC countries, as Islamic states, provide the right environment for their people to fast – food is not generally served during the day for example. This all has implications for employers, local or global, operating in the GCC – but they don’t need to be negative. It makes it even more important that leaders (and HR) take the opportunity to fully engage their teams,” he says.
Saudi Arabia is currently considering reducing the working week in the private sector from 48 to 40 hours on a permanent basis. But do such apparent impediments to efficiency really produce the outcome that many employers and businessmen fear?
The answer is very probably no. There are often reported increases in effective working during Ramadan when it is easier to travel and arrange and attend meetings and employee engagement and team commitment is enhanced by a less urgent and formal environment.
And evidence from around the rest of the world would suggest that a shorter working week is almost always beneficial in the long term to both workers and business, however counter-intuitive this might appear. Research into the effect of reduced hours on productivity has been going on for many years and the great majority of it suggests no real advantage in working staff for long hours.
The effects of excessive hours on performance can also have drastic consequences; consider that the Challenger shuttle disaster and the Exxon Valdez oil spill were both attributable, in part at least, to overworked, tired and underperforming staff. Efficiency analysts also suggested that the launch of the original Apple Mac computer was delayed for about a year by the long-hours culture at Apple.
What might appear a short term gain in working people beyond the stage where they are really effective can be more than offset by longer term problems in terms of staff burn-out, errors, retention and recruitment problems as well as very quickly diminishing returns in productivity.
The Japanese have consistently reduced working hours since the early 1970s but their productivity continued to rise over the period. China cut its working hours to 40 per week in 1995 largely in response to human rights issues but its trade surplus with the US (where working hours are actually increasing now) has grown and grown.
In the UK in the 1970s when the country was forced to work a 3-day week due to a miners’ strike, experts were baffled to find that production fell by only 6 per cent. All of these – and other –studies point to the desirability of a working day of around 8 hours with significant fall-off beyond this level and most productivity occurring in hours 2-6. Office workers were found to be even more susceptible to deterioration in performance with only around 6 useful hours per day compared with 8 for more manual jobs.
This would all appear to be good news for the Saudis and their working week plans. Professor William observes, ‘Ramadan only happens once a year but studies have shown that more time spent relaxing, recuperating, spending time with family leads to happier and more efficient workers generally and such an enlightened approach rewards employers with better and more productive staff all year round. ‘
“This is primarily a leadership and management issue,” he concludes. “A great leader helps their team work effectively and happily to make the very most of every hour. OSC runs research and training programmes that have already helped many leaders to go from good to great. Inspired and effective leaders can usually spot the big opportunity behind every apparent threat.”