The 4-day week and the culture wars

The four-day week became an unlikely victim of the culture wars when a local council adopted it in a pilot. The results of that pilot are now in – and they seem very positive.

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The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. And that definitely applies to the 4-day week. It may not work for everyone and every organisation needs to tailor it for their own needs, but when it works it can be a boon, particularly when it comes to recruitment and retention. And that’s what South Cambridgeshire District Council has found, despite the Conservative government trying to block their pilot at every turn, based solely, it would seem, on ideological opposition to it. While Labour has said it won’t introduce legislation to make a four-day week more widely available, several prominent ministers support workplace trials.

An independent evaluation by two universities, just published, shows the council has improved or maintained services in 22 out of 24 indicators. The 4-day week pilot means officers carry out 100 per cent of their work in around 80% of their contracted hours for 100% of their pay.

The report found that opening hours have not been affected and that in 11 measures the council was performing better during the trial, compared to beforehand. This includes call answering times, timeliness of planning decisions, how long it takes to process benefits claims and speed of emergency repairs to Council homes.

A further 11 key performance indicators showed no significant differences during the trial – meaning those services continued to be delivered to the quality they were previously. The frequency of bin collections has also remained the same.

The two areas that were exceptions in terms of performance during the trial period were housing rent collected and average days to re-let housing stock, the former likely affected by Covid and the cost of living crisis. In the case of re-letting Council homes, the report says the top 25 per cent performing Councils in the country average 37 days to relet Council houses. In 2022/23 the average turnaround time for South Cambridgeshire District Council was 28 days; in 2023/24 it was 30 days. It adds that returned Council homes now also often require extensive works which take longer to complete.

One of the key reasons for doing the trial was to improve recruitment and retention – and it seems to have succeeded in that. A financial assessment of the trial found a full-year cost saving of £371,500. This is mainly due to permanently filling 10 posts that were previously identified as ‘hard to fill’. The financial saving has been made by not needing more expensive agency alternatives.

Meanwhile, recruitment data shows there has been a large 53 per cent increase in the average number of applications for jobs advertised externally and more than 130 new staff have joined the Council. Of new starters, 76 per cent were influenced by the four-day week trial when deciding whether to join. That’s got to be a good thing, surely, in a world of public sector cuts and labour shortages.

What’s more, a health and wellbeing survey showed higher employee commitment, with more staff reporting they intend to stay longer working for the Council. Mental and physical health and motivation have also risen. The Conservatives wanted to discourage other councils from following suit and took action to stop the council from continuing with the trial, saying it didn’t offer best value for the public.

When it comes to what works, it is really best to stick to the evidence rather than to manufacture fear. The fact that the Council had the courage to explore alternatives to the traditional ways of working, which appear to have been vindicated, despite the threats and bad press shows that it pays not to listen to the ideologues. While the council has still to debate the reports, it’s worth thinking about the value of experimentation at a time of constant change and of listening to what employees need.

Indeed the 4-Day Week has just announced a new flexible working pilot from September which will, in conjunction with Timewise, apply the same model to a range of flexible options, from a shorter working week and flexi start and finishes to a nine-day fortnight and compressed hours. There has been a lot of focus in the last years on remote working. The pilot will explore ways to bring the benefits of flexible working to a much wider range of workers. In a world of ever-increasing demands, particularly for those with caring responsibilities, more time seems to be key.

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