UK workers favour four-day week and increased remote working

14 September 2018 7 min. read

As employers move toward more agile models of doing business, employees are increasingly expecting a new level of flexibility to reflect the changing structures of global commerce. The majority favour a four-day week, while almost six in 10 want the option to work remotely at least some of the time. Despite this, more than 40% of workers feel their company does not make remote working a regular option for them.

During the annual Trade Union Congress (TUC) conference, Britain’s collective trade union body called on employers in the UK to facilitate a move towards a four-day working week. The leader of the UK’s trade union movement,  Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, said in a statement to the organisation’s 150th annual gathering that the power of technology should be used harnessed to shorten the working week.

Speaking in Manchester, O’Grady said that the fruits of the current digital revolution should benefit broader society. She expanded, “In the 19th century, unions campaigned for an eight-hour day. In the twentieth century, we won the right to a two-day weekend and paid holidays. So, for the 21st century, let’s lift our ambition again. I believe that in this century we can win a four-day working week, with decent pay for everyone. It’s time to share the wealth from new technology. Not allow those at the top to grab it for themselves.”

The days most preferred by employees in a four-day week

In alignment with O’Grady’s assertions, a new survey shows that there is indeed demand for a four-day week, and remote working amongst the workforce. According to a survey of 1,677 full-time employees by office supplier Viking, businesses should amend their nine-to-five timetable keep staff happy, with Friday seemingly chosen as the day most would like to see sacrificed to a longer weekend. The results of Viking’s cross-industry poll showed that only 50% of workers favoured working on Friday, compared to three quarters who favour Mondays, or those who would prefer Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, each in excess of 90%.

According to the researchers, this shorter working week would not necessarily mean a loss of working hours for business, with many employees willing to trade longer days for their shorter week. A number of respondents said they would work altered hours to make up for the extra day off, if required. The most popular options for this were a nine hour day on Monday, 10 hours on Tuesday and Wednesday and nine hours on Thursday. The most popular start time for employees was 8am, which was selected by 60% of people, suggesting managers might need to prepare for a four-day week, 8am to 6pm with some flexible working on Monday and Thursday.

While this might seem favourable to many employers, as opposed to paying the same wage without the hours a fifth day would bring, however, such a measure to ‘compensate’ employers for allowing their staff more time to recuperate might actually negate the benefits of a four-day week. The potential for machinery and AI to improve productivity, and enable humans to add greater value in the time they work has been greatly documented, and would potentially allow for companies to grant a four-day week without such a measure to make up for ‘lost’ hours.

Amount of time preferred for lunch break length

At the same time the study also revealed a portion of workers would sacrifice part or all of their lunch break for a four-day week, with 10% saying they could function with no break at all, and 65% favouring less than 30 minutes. Again, weighing this up, it could end up backfiring by negating some of the pluses of a four-day week. By law, workers are entitled to a 20-minute break for every six hours they work, and taking a break is good for employees, preventing fatigue and improving relationships with colleagues to boost morale, and productivity. At the same time, some flexibility with them might be helpful, and allowing workers to choose their own lunch break could demonstrate trust in staff, increasing loyalty towards an employer.

According to participants of the survey, the suggested changes in working hours could provide a number of outcomes which would likely benefit both staff and employers. Seven in 10 of those quizzed stated they believed the alterations would make them happier overall. This is likely related to the fact that 68% said relatedly that they would be better rested, and 65% would be less stressed by work as a result, and 62% would see their relationships with friends and family improve.

Sick staff currently cost British businesses some £77 billion a year in lost productivity, and studies have already shown that companies that care more about health and welfare of their employees enjoy better engagement, while employees are less often sick, meaning productivity receives a boost. To that end, 61% of people questioned said changing working hours would make them more productive, 54% believed they would be more creative and 51% would receive a boost to their motivation.

Expected impact of changes to working hours

Remote control

The study also found that employees do not only want to alter when they work, but where. While in the past, the majority of work had to be done in the office because the necessary resources could only be found there, digital advances and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) mean that using a laptop and a secure internet connection, office workers can perform many of the same tasks from home. While some aspects of a job will always require face-to-face contact, Skype, conference calling and emails can make out of office interaction with colleagues almost as easy, too.

In recognition of this, 59% of UK full-time office workers polled expressed a desire to work from home for at least some of their working week. While the average amount people would like to see allowed for remote working is around one-third of the working week, at 34%, a notable one in five participants said they would favour fulfilling between 90 and 100% of their duties from home. This is not to say that the majority of workers would like to spend whole days at home, however, with most thinking it would be best to only work from home in the morning, giving them the chance to get into the working day and sort out priorities and admin, before venturing to the office around lunch to undertake face-to-face and resource-heavy commitments.

Interestingly, remote working proved to be especially popular among younger generations. According to Viking’s study, 68% of 16-to-25-year-olds prioritised remote working, compared to just 54% of over 55s. This gap might come partially from Millennials and Generation Z being ‘digital natives’, who are more accustomed to taking care of their own IT needs rather than relying on an office infrastructure, however, as the UK’s workforce becomes increasingly dominated by younger generations, while an ageing population depletes older aspects of the workforce, remote working is likely to become standard practice, as opposed to an extra.

Related: Inflexible UK employers see working mothers lose £1.3 trillion in earnings annually.