For or against? Why employers may want to think twice about the four-day working week

The pandemic has irreversibly transformed the way we work.

For or against? Why employers may want to think twice about the four-day working week

The pandemic has irreversibly transformed the way we work. Even now – one year since the last lockdown – research has found that UK workers are still only going into the office for an average of 1.5 days a week (down from 3.8 days a week pre-pandemic).

While the office is still championed by some businesses, many have yielded to demands for better flexible working practices. We can expect this trend to become the norm given the current labour shortages which have effectively created a sellers’ market, handing the employee more power to call the shots.

We’re starting to see employers doing more to attract candidates. This includes offering higher salaries, improving employee benefits packages, looking at flexible working solutions or even exploring more unusual wellbeing initiatives such as LinkedIn offering fertility benefits and Bumble giving staff unlimited paid holiday.

It’s within this context that the UK recently launched a six-month pilot to trial a four-day working week with no loss in pay for employees. The pilot is assessing the potential impact of a four-day working week on more than 3,000 workers at 60 companies and runs alongside similar schemes taking place in Ireland, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The rise of the four-day working week

While the current economic climate and labour market has helped to give rise to the four-day working week, the trend has been a long time in the making.

Naturally, interest in the policy has always been high among workers, but there are genuine health and business benefits that should encourage employers to consider it as an option.

A leading motivating factor is improving people’s work-life balance, giving them more time to pursue other interests and enjoy free time with the family. According to recent research that we conducted into the opinions of over 2,000 UK workers and 250 UK employers, the most common reason for employers supporting the four-day working week is improved employee wellbeing. Employers cite a “better work-life balance” (51%) as the most common benefit, followed by “increased employee happiness” (43%), “higher employee engagement” (41%) and a “reduction of burnout” (36%). 

While a four-day working week hasn’t always been an easy sell to employers, businesses are starting to wake up to the potential benefits. There is evidence to show that improved workplace happiness can lead to higher levels of staff retention and attraction, positively impacting the bottom line. The four-day working week also encourages increased productivity, according to a New Zealand four-day workweek pilot which found that workers make more efficient use of their time, taking shorter breaks and spending less time procrastinating.

With more businesses buying into the benefits of a shorter working week, it is likely that we will see it become a more common feature of the employment landscape alongside other flexible working arrangements.

Re-assessing the four-day working week

Before rushing to embrace the four-day working week, employers would be wise to approach it with caution.

Despite the success of pilots globally, it’s not possible for all businesses to adopt the scheme. For example, it’s much simpler to introduce for businesses operating digitally than for industries like hospitality or the public sector. This could further exacerbate the creation of a two-speed workforce, whereby sectors which are unable to embrace the four-day working week may become less attractive to a large talent pool, leaving these industries struggling to recruit. With a lot of companies and industries already short-staffed, this could further aggravate labour shortages and cause disruption to trade and services.

Equally, reducing the number of workers on certain days could increase pressure on employees, or increase workloads within a shorter period of time. The National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work has suggested cramming five days’ work into four might create more stress, not less.

Instead, offering greater flexibility could be more impactful and more popular. Indeed, our research found that flexible working is more popular than the four-day working week among jobseekers.

Flexible working is a way of working that suits an individual’s needs, such as flexible start and finish times and/or working from home. It allows employers to customise working hours to the particular needs of the person, such as parents who may wish to work later or earlier depending on their child’s school day. 

Yet despite all this, the findings of our survey also revealed that over a third (37%) of employers are introducing a four-day working week, and a further quarter of employers (27%) are considering it. Implementing a blanket four-day working week policy may not actually be the best or most popular way for businesses to attract and retain top talent – instead, employers should consider their options and take a more tailored approach to flexible working.

The future is flexible  

Amid a highly competitive labour market, it’s encouraging to see so many employers open to exploring new and creative methods to attract candidates. The era of the traditional 9-to-5, five-day working week is over and it’s more important than ever for employers and employees to embrace flexible and inclusive working patterns that allow everyone to contribute to the workforce.

Factoring in a range of approaches can help businesses remain competitive. Choosing the options that work best for your business, but also crucially, for your employees, and then tailoring the benefits on an individual basis will have the best possible outcome for your retention and engagement programmes.


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