Local council adopts 4-day week: But does it work?

South Cambridgeshire District Council has been trialling a four-day working week for 450 desk staff for the last three months; the basic concept being that employees have reduced their working hours to a 30-hour week, while receiving no cut in pay. 

The council are the first local authority to trial a shorter week; providing a potential blueprint for how government could adopt this model.

An alternative model

This approach to working, while deemed by some to be “putting ideology ahead of delivery,”  has produced positive results so far. The council has announced its decision to extend the trial for another 12 months after independently-analysed data showed the new work pattern to be a success. 

The Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge reviewed the council’s performance data across key areas, including planning, housing, transformation, human resources and corporate services and finance. Nine out of the 16 areas monitored showed “substantial improvement” when comparing the trial period from January to March to the same period in 2022. 

The remaining seven areas monitored either remain at similar levels compared to the same period last year or saw a slight decline. The Bennett Institute noted, however, that not a single area of performance fell to a “concerning level” during the trial. 

The four-day week has also had a positive impact on the critical recruitment and retention issues the council was facing – a challenge echoed across the wider public sector. Before the trial started, the council said it was spending about £2 million a year on agency staff.  

“Not being able to fill vacant posts – or switching between agency staff to cover them – is both costly and disruptive to services for residents. For example, when case officers change during the process of a planning application, it can cause delays and frustration because a lot of context and institutional memory is lost,” the council said. 

Since introducing a shorter week, the council’s annual wage bill has already decreased by £300,000. 

Working smarter

The idea of a three-day weekend is certainly appealing. But it is not about working less, it’s about working smarter, stresses Cllr Bridget Smith, leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council. “It’s about becoming mores Cllr Bridget Smith, leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council. productive. We should remember that the five-day work week is around 100 years old. Across the country, we work some of the longest hours in Europe and yet somehow, have one of the least productive economies.”

She continues: "The savings we make will help support the delivery of frontline services, especially for those impacted by the cost of living crisis. This is all in line with our aim to be a modern and caring Council."

The council says key to achieving shorter hours is flexibility in how tasks are completed and how hours of work are constructed. Methods adopted include more effective prioritisation of daily tasks, picking-up the phone rather than writing a long email, delegating and designating tasks more effectively amongst staff and fewer, shorter, more focused meetings.

There is also a renewed emphasis on digital services. As part of the trial, the council said it is looking to extend the hours that it is open to the public via a soon-to-be-launched webchat service or Teams/Zoom meetings.

To ensure adequate cover across every weekday, council staff were asked to select Monday or Friday as their non-working day; leaving Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday as the ‘core-days’ when colleagues could be confident that meetings can take place. The council found that “anecdotally” on these non-core days - Monday and Friday - staff were more productive as they could progress on projects without distraction. 

Different days off for colleagues presents a co–ordination problem. A key learning for South Cambridgeshire has been to ensure that there are clear alternate contacts on email signatures on someone’s day off. This followed concerns raised by councillors that they had struggled to contact the right officer on their day off. 

Support grows 

There is now a growing body of research that says shorter working weeks can lead to staff being more productive - as long as there are processes in place that allow the workforce to continues delivering at 100% capacity. 

The largest study so far took place last December when 61 UK companies from a range of sectors moved to a four-day week for six months. At the end, 90% of the firms said they would continue with the experiment and 18 companies confirmed the policy as a permanent change. The majority of those taking part said that not only had productivity been retained, but that also staff retention rates had improved and there was a 65% reduction in the number of sick days take.

In Iceland, 86% of the workforce have committed to working fewer hours following two large-scale trials by the Reykjavik government between 2014 -2021 that shortened the work week to 35-36 hours without a reduction in pay. In this case, analysis shows government-managed contact centres saw an increased proportion of calls answered - achieving higher productivity, while the performance of local government contact centres was not impacted by the shorter working hours. 

As the evidence in support of a four-day work week has gained momentum, it has captured the attention of understaffed and overworked UK public sector workers. The fantasy has moved far beyond water-cooler chit-chat between colleagues; sparking debates in Parliament.

More are starting to make the move towards reduced hours: Swale Council in Kent has closed its offices at 13.30 on Fridays. They said this is part of a wider transformation plan and to help recruit and retain staff when local government funding is continuing to fall. 

So far, South Cambridgeshire has only tested a four-day week on desk staff where there is arguably more flexibility to experiment and to make changes when something doesn’t work. However, binmen in South Cambridgeshire and Cambridge City Council are set to make the transition into a four-day working week under new plans currently being drawn up by the council who believe it will reduce sickness levels and injuries. The plan is to optimise bin routes to maximise productivity while working a day less. 

If the trial is approved, it will provide an opportunity to understand how the four-day week impacts more regular public services; lending credibility to a model which has been met with considerable criticism. 

Jury is still out

While the results of recent four-day trials have been promising, they are not overwhelmingly convincing. 

Analysis by the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) has raised concerns that a loss of working time caused by a four-day week could result in either poorer public services or a substantial increase in taxes or borrowing to pay for more staff to make up the shortfall. The TPA expressed doubts over South Cambridgeshire's experiment after it found that key performance indicators, including the percentage of residents satisfied with repairs and the average time it takes for the council to answer the phone, are down when compared to before the pandemic. 

Nancy Hey headshot colour (2)Nancy Hey, Executive Director at the What Works Centre for Wellbeing - an organisation that conducts wellbeing research within government - says a lack of clarity and consistency in the trials carried out so far means the four-day week trials should be approached with “a degree of scepticism.”

She explains that the trials tend to be conducted by companies that want a four-day week, making the findings less reliable due to inherent bias. There is also a need for a counterfactual - rather than the ‘before and after’ approach  most trials adopt. This is critical if studies are to be compared accurately, she says. 

Lastly, it is unclear what methods are being used to measure conditions like burnout, work stress and productivity. “What is 'increased productivity?' How is this measured when departments are so different? These are all questions that need to be addressed,” Hey stresses. 

She continues: “Job quality has been shown to contribute to wellbeing so it is reasonable to assume that changes to work patterns can drive positive benefits. However, the quality of evidence needs to increase before anyone can confidently claim wellbeing benefits. Cost-effectiveness also needs to be thoroughly evaluated if public funding is used due to accountability to the taxpayer.”

Imperfections aside, Hey says the four-day week is a reasonable intervention to try out based on the evidence, “but the key question is whether it works in practice.” Going forward, a more rigorous and robust approach should be taken to researching the impacts of a four-day week. 

AI and the future workforce 

South Cambridgeshire’s own trial has presented local councils with an appealing alternative way of working. Embracing new technologies like AI will be central to determining whether it works in practice and contributing to a transition to reduced hours, says Workday's EMEA Chief Technology Officer, Clare Hickie. Clare Hickie Headshot

"AI and Machine Learning has the promise to significantly enhance productivity and efficiency in the public sector. Whether it is automating repetitive tasks, providing real-time insights, personalising the work experience, or collaborating across teams, this technology can help public sector organisational leaders accomplish more in less time.”

AI-driven analytics can also evaluate the viability and possible impact of implementing new methods like the four-day week by examining personnel data, workload distribution, and productivity measures. 

Despite this, AI remains largely overlooked and underused by central and local governments. According to research by Workday, only 1 in 5 government leaders have made progress deploying technologies to streamline or automate workflows and augment the capacity of the existing workforce, compared to 1 in 3 of all leaders across industries.

Hickie emphasises that AI will be a crucial tool in helping the public sector to reinvent their business systems and power the future of work. “These transformations are simply not possible without AI and ML, and organisations that aren’t adopting this may find themselves already falling behind," she says. 

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