Flexibility or a four-day working week – what’s more favourable?

The last few years have triggered a lot of change in the workplace. One of the most notable is the move to working from home, with companies now offering hybrid working to meet workers’ demands.

What used to be a ‘nice to have’ has now become a reality and an expectation in the modern workplace. Conversely, the move to allowing employees to work from home has led people to value their work-life balance and sense of self-worth. But a new concept hitting the headlines is the idea of a four-day working week, and what this could mean for both UK employers and workers. 

We explore insights from our recent study which surveyed over 2,000 jobseekers and 250 UK employers, to determine what is more favourable: a four-day working week, or flexible working? But first, let’s explore the four-day working week trial…

The UK joins the largest four-day working week trial

A four-day working week may seem counterintuitive for some and a dream for others. There’s no doubt that the pandemic shifted the way that we work and what jobseekers expect from an employer, but there are pros and cons to consider when it comes to a four-day working week. 

Let’s face it; people don’t like change. When the UK was faced with the prospect of working from home during the pandemic, many employers feared what this might mean for productivity. How will teams adapt to this new way of working? What effect will it have on company morale? How is this going to affect my bottom line? These are potentially some of the questions that senior management and HR teams had to tackle. But, we did it.

Fast forward a few years, and we’ve seen that the change doesn’t stop there. 

On 6 June 2022, 71 UK companies with over 3,300 employees joined a groundbreaking four-day working week trial. The premise behind the pilot – organised by non-profit 4 Day Week Global – is that businesses implement a reduction in hours from the standard 40 hours per week to 32 hours with no loss of pay. Each participating company can choose how they structure their week according to their individual needs, as long as they honour the reduction in hours.

Following the ‘100-80-100™ rule’, businesses commit to paying employees 100% of their salary in exchange for 80% of their time and 100% productivity. Working alongside researchers from Cambridge University, the pilot aims to understand the impact these changes could have on productivity, wellbeing, gender equality, and the environment.  

Iceland – the pioneers of the four-day working week

The UK is not the first, nor is it the only country taking part in a trial of this type. The pandemic prompted many countries to assess the way that they work and reconsider the options that businesses offer their employees. 

In 2015, Iceland paved the way for four-day working week trials by running a four-year (yes, you read that right) trial with no loss of pay. The results showed that employee wellbeing improved; workers endured less stress and burnout, and businesses didn’t see a drop in productivity. 

The focus of Iceland’s trial concentrated on hours rather than days. Not all workers dropped down to working a four-day week, but they did all reduce their hours from 40 hours per week to around 36 hours instead. 

89% of workers are in favour of a four-day working week

While some people would be open to ditching a working day, to give them a better work-life balance and potentially a longer weekend, this isn’t the case for all.

In our latest survey, we found that nine out of 10 workers would be in favour of having a four-day working week (89%)*. Of these, 16% of workers would even be willing to accept a pay cut or salary decrease in order to work fewer days. However, almost three-quarters (73%) of respondents said that they would be open to a four-day working week, but only if it came with no changes to their salary. 

Interestingly, when we asked employers what they thought about the idea of introducing a four-day working week, over a third (37%)** said that they are implementing it, and a further quarter (27%) are considering it. This indicates that while the concept isn’t yet common practice, the future of work may not look like the traditional nine-to-five that we are all accustomed to. 

Will a four-day week bring greater flexibility?

As we’ve already touched on, when businesses had no option but to implement a work from home set-up, there were concerns around what this could mean for productivity levels.  

However, as it transpires, this new style of work allowed many workers to have more autonomy over their time and enjoy increased flexibility in their working day. Nowadays, ‘hybrid’, ‘remote’, and ‘flexible’ working are common benefits on the majority of job ads. Giving employees the choice of where they work has created a sentiment of trust, and in the long term, more loyalty. In fact, 62% of the adults surveyed said flexible working was one of the top employee benefits, given the freedom and balance that it brings to their life. 

The businesses taking part in the four-day working week trial  will naturally expect the same level of productivity from their staff. As stated by 4 Day Week Global, this pilot aims to exchange “100% pay for 100% output”. Workers are still striving to achieve the same goals and hit the same targets, just in fewer days or hours.

However, if this is not achievable and workers struggle to keep their output at the same level, this could potentially lead to longer days and more rigid hours. Given that one of the overarching goals of the pilot is to improve work-life balance, it begs the question – is a condensed week necessarily the answer?

What do candidates (really really) want? 

Our survey unearthed that many businesses have flexible working at the forefront of their attraction and retention strategies. We found that 34% of businesses are working to offer improved flexibility and a further 32% are encouraging a greater work-life balance in order to retain employees. Beyond this, 36% of employers believe that advertising flexible working on job ads will attract more talent to their business as opposed to the 27% that are advertising a four-day working week. 

In this case, they’ve hit the nail on the head. Our research demonstrates that 45% of jobseekers would be more inclined to apply for a role that lists flexible working options in their job advert as opposed to the 40% that would be enticed by the mention of a four-day working week. 

In the grand scheme of things, flexible working and four-day working week structures are fairly new phenomena and when we consider what is important to candidates, it’s essential that we consider all aspects of working life. 

Unsurprisingly, especially with the current cost-of-living crisis tightening its grip, when asked what factors are the most important when looking for a job, 60% of respondents said salary and compensation. A healthy work-life balance was not far behind at 51%, and 31% of respondents held good relationships with colleagues in high regard. 

Flexible working patterns not only help businesses create a good work-life balance, but also allows businesses to cultivate a more inclusive workplace. It encourages diversity within an organisation by making work more accessible for all, opening up a wealth of opportunities for returning parents, those with caring responsibilities, people who wish to upskill alongside their work, plus many more. 

Is a four-day working week the best solution?

Overall, workers have come to expect flexible working options from employers and businesses are likely to miss out on top talent if they don’t offer it. It’s important to note that while there is no one size fits all approach to flexibility, and a four-day working week may not be feasible in all industries or companies, we should be striving to implement solutions that best serve the business and employees alike. 

Employees value the trust, autonomy and balance that goes hand in hand with flexible working, but it is worth asking if a four-day week really has as many benefits as it seems on the surface.  Undoubtedly, it is an intriguing concept that has the potential to shake up the world of work as we know it and it will be interesting to see if the pilot will be as successful in the UK as it has been elsewhere. For now, we’ll just have to wait and see.


*This online survey was conducted by Atomik Research and consisted of 2,004 adults in the UK (95% were employed and 5% were unemployed). This survey took place between the 4th – 11th February 2022. Atomik Research is an independent creative market research agency that employs MRS-certified researchers and abides by the MRS code.

**This online survey was conducted by Atomik Research and consisted of 250 employees with hiring responsibilities in the UK. The research fieldwork took place between 7th-10th June 2022. Atomik Research is an independent creative market research agency that employs MRS-certified researchers and abides to MRS code.