Why a four-day week works

By Cllr Bridget Smith | 07 March 2023

There has been a lot in the news recently about the national four-day week pilot, which saw 60 companies take part in a six-month trial of a four-day week. Their results have been overwhelmingly positive. South Cambridgeshire is, we believe, the first council in the UK to undertake a trial, and early data is promising.

We committed to the trial for a few reasons. At one point last year we were only filling 50% of the jobs we advertised. Although not excessive, key jobs had higher turnover than we wanted, and we know how expensive it is to recruit and train new colleagues – some academics suggest it costs 150% of a person’s annual salary to replace them and get the new person up to speed.

We were also carrying an agency bill of £2m annually, which could be reduced by £1m if all of these posts were filled by permanent employees.

While our sickness rates were low, we undertook a comprehensive health and wellbeing survey last summer which showed some of our staff were stressed. All these things are issues we thought might be addressed by the four-day week.

What is a four-day week? It is when colleagues deliver 100% of the work, in 80% of the time, for 100% of the pay.

It requires a fundamental change in the way work is done. You can’t squeeze a full-time job into four days without being more productive. It is not compressed hours, but instead it is about working fewer, but longer days.

We gave our colleagues the opportunity to work in their teams and plan what they could do differently. In that three-month planning period from October-December 2022 we saw more transformation than we had ever seen at the council.

We have a brilliant transformation team, but their job had always been to go into services and deliver savings by automating or redesigning services – with very little in it for the people working in the service – and possibly the threat of redundancy.

The four-day week is a different proposition altogether. We commit to give our colleagues an extra day off if they commit to be more productive. It is as simple as that – and it seems to be working. We are seeing a step change in ways of working and productivity which is being led by individuals doing the work – they have a real incentive to change, and they are making it happen.

While it is early days – the trial will measure January to March 2023 performance data – the story so far is positive. Performance was broadly maintained in January across all services. And the majority of colleagues reported feeling they have enough time to do their job in 80% of the time, and they feel less stressed.

It is too early to draw any conclusions yet. We will look at the whole quarter of key performance indicators (January – March 2023) when cabinet meets in May, alongside a ‘before and after’ health and wellbeing survey. If the results from both of these are positive – and we are not assuming anything yet – we would consider moving to a year-long trial, because that is when we think we could really have an impact on recruitment and retention, which is where the journey started for us.

We always said there is no playbook for the four-day week in the public sector and that effectively we are writing it as we go. We have learned a huge amount already.

Having Mondays and Fridays as the days that people don’t work meant we moved all our internal meetings to Tuesday to Thursday. This had the unintended but brilliant consequence of meaning when people are working on Monday or Friday, they normally have a day free of meetings – and productivity on this day alone has been phenomenal.

We have also shortened most of our standard meetings, and challenged who is in the meeting. Is there a clear agenda? What is the outcome – and could it be an email? We asked people to share their productivity top tips and ideas and this too has been impressive. I have learned a lot.

Our shared Planning Service with Cambridge City Council added to the complexity of the trial, but we are pleased to be working closely with members from the city council and are keen to see whether even a large, shared service can deliver in a four-day week environment.

We are also working on delivering a trial in our shared waste service, also with Cambridge City Council. This requires a completely different approach, as there is far less flexibility in the way bins are collected. We plan for this trial to start in the summer.

Have we had much criticism from the public? Not as much as I expected. And when we explain the reasons why we are doing it, and the fact that if the trial works we could save money from reduced agency costs, most people understand. And we are really clear that it’s a trial. We want to see the evidence, before we make any further decisions. But so far, I am optimistic.

Cllr Bridget Smith is leader of South Cambridgeshire DC

@cllrbridget @SouthCambs

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