The Council’s four-day working week has led to increased retention and productivity – should the wider public sector follow suit?

A four-day working week introduced by South Cambridgeshire District Council – the first local authority to pilot the scheme – has led to higher retention, productivity and job satisfaction, despite criticism from the previous government, a follow-up report has found.

A study of the council’s pilot, carried out by a group of academics who followed it, found that staff turnover had fallen by 39 per cent since the trial began in January 2023, significantly reducing recruitment demands and saving £371,500 in a year, mostly on agency staff costs.

Researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Salford found that a four-day working week improved performance in 11 of the 24 areas, there was no or little change in 11 areas, and performance worsened in just two areas – rent collection and re-letting – over the 15-month trial period.

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The study, which surveyed about 450 office workers and garbage collectors, also found that standard building permit applications were processed about a week and a half earlier; about 15 percent more decisions on major building permit applications were made on the main schedule; workers filed fewer property tax benefit applications and had housing benefit modifications completed more quickly.

In addition, it found that 134 new employees were recruited, the average number of applications for externally advertised positions increased by 53 percent, and 76 percent of new hires said they were inspired to apply for positions because of the four-day workweek.

The study also found that motivation, physical and mental health had improved since January last year, while employee complaints had fallen by 8.5 per cent for teams dealing with other types of waste and by 20 per cent for teams dealing with shared waste collection across all sample periods.

One employee told researchers the environment was “significantly better,” adding that “people are happier, they’re not at their wits’ end and they’re coping better with challenges. (There) also seems to be a more productive approach to work.”

Another employee said the test had a positive impact on his work-life balance and well-being, and allowed him to “be more productive and successful on the days I work.”

South Cambridgeshire District Council is trialling a four-day desk-based working week from January 2023, with the initial three-month trial period being extended for a further year in May 2023 following independent analysis of productivity statistics. Staff were expected to do 100% of their tasks, 80% of the time, for 100% of their pay.

However, the council’s decision to extend the four-day week has been met with criticism, with a minister telling BBC Radio Cambridgeshire at the time that the council’s decision was “hugely disappointing and arrogant”. The council became the first local authority to trial a four-day week, despite calls from the previous government to end it.

So, should other public sector organisations consider implementing a similar model, given the improvements in efficiency and productivity seen following the introduction of a four-day working week at the district council?

Joe Ryle, campaign director of the 4 Day Week Campaign, said the results “prove once and for all that a four-day week without loss of pay can definitely be a success in local government… Not only has work-life balance improved significantly, but the efficiency of the council has improved too.

“With a more supportive Labour government, councils and public sector organisations now have a huge opportunity to start planning for a four-day working week.”

Emily Bennett, HR Technical Consultant at AdviserPlus, said: “When employees are happy at work, have a healthy work-life balance and are paid fairly, this impacts on their productivity and the overall workplace atmosphere.

“Numerous studies have consistently shown the benefits of a four-day working week and the success of the trial in Cambridgeshire is no exception… Governments and organisations cannot afford to ignore the significant return on investment that these initiatives deliver.”

Gemma Ryall, senior manager at LACE Partners, told People Management that the positive results of the study indicate that a four-day working week could be of interest to other public sector organisations.

“Where current budgets are already constrained, the financial benefits appear compelling and, alongside positive results on staff retention and increased job applications, this could indicate that the four-day working week has created a more attractive value proposition for employees in South Cambridgeshire,” she said.

However, Ryall noted that a four-day workweek “will not fit all business models and must be tailored to the specific needs and circumstances of each organization.

“It can be iterative, so potentially where there were mixed results, you can adjust that. You also need to make sure that the systems and solid data sources are in place to measure productivity levels before and after.”

Professor Feng Li, chair of information management and vice dean for research and innovation at Bayes Business School, was also cautious about the broader applicability of the program. “Interests may promote its benefits, but there may also be potential challenges, such as maintaining service levels and organizational efficiency, with a possible increase in demands on management,” he said.

This was particularly important for public sector enterprises, Li added, emphasizing that organizations must consider “not only the internal impacts on employees and potential organizational savings, but also the external impacts on service quality and customer experience… While employee well-being and organizational performance are important, the primary focus should always be on effectively serving the public and prioritizing their needs.”

Asda recently joined the ranks of private sector companies that have scrapped the four-day working week initiative, which was scrapped after workers complained that overtime on bank holidays was wearing them down, despite managers originally being allowed to work 44 hours over four days for the same pay.

However, although the scheme was referred to as a “four-day workweek”, it was more akin to short-time working, where the same number of hours are worked over fewer days, than to a four-day week, where a full day of work is lost with no reduction in pay.

Brent Cassell, vice president of consulting at Gartner HR, said the South Cambridgeshire study could encourage other public sector organisations to consider what a “roadmap” to a four-day working week might look like, as the study highlighted “not only improved employee retention but also a positive impact on productivity”.

He added that progressive leaders can support the policy because it improves employee experiences by reducing stress and facilitating work-life balance, especially for caregivers, while also retaining talent and increasing revenue.

“Moreover, for companies that can’t afford to compete on compensation, this will prove to be a compelling factor in the growing competition for talent. However, when leaders decide to follow suit, they need to proceed in a stepwise manner, allowing them to experiment and respond in real time to potential challenges and solve them before they cause lasting damage,” Cassell explained.

Similarly, Molly Johnson-Jones, CEO and co-founder of Flexa, said: “Agility is not a one-size-fits-all solution, it’s more of a spectrum, so contextualizing policies within your own organization is key to success.

“The clear retention benefits revealed by the trial at South Cambridgeshire District Council show that the four-day working week, if implemented correctly, can be a real game-changer for an organisation.”