UK Government Backwards Approach to the Four-day Work Week
I like the saying – “there’s no progress without slow progress”. But there’s slow progress, and then there’s going backwards – and that seems to be the strategy for the UK government on its views to the four-day work week.
Despite the UK trials of the four-day work week being a resounding success, in late October the UK government told local councils in England to end any trials of a four-day working week with their employees.
Britain’s Minister for Local Government Lee Rowley said in a statement, “The government is being crystal clear that it does not support the adoption of the four-day working week within the local government sector. Local authorities that are considering adopting it should not do so. Those who have adopted it already should end those practices immediately. Value for local taxpayers is paramount and no further focus should be given by local authorities on this matter. The department is also exploring other measures to ensure that the sector is clear that this working practice should not be pursued.”
At present only one local council has been piloting the four-day work week- South Cambridgeshire district council. And despite the UK governments firm words to cease the experiment, South Cambridgeshire has said it’s going to continue it’s trial of the four-day work week as it has already improved recruitment and led to over £50,000 in savings on agency workers.
Norwich city council has also said it will look into trial of the four-day work week, and the Scottish government will be piloting a four-day public sector working week later this year.
What’s the Government's reasons?
The practice of a four-day work week is where staff take on reduced hours, but stay on the same pay. There is no rigid approach to the four-day work week, some companies take off a set day, others create an alternative approach, but the operational hours of the business or organisation remain the same. If a company operates a 24 hour service, it will still provide a 24 hour service – the only things that change is the hours people work and how that’s managed.
The UK government’s reason for ending the four-day work in local councils is that as Lee Rowley stated, they don’t believe the concept offers taxpayers “good value for money”. Yet, both South Cambridgeshire Council and the UK four-day work week trials show that this approach to working provides greater value, if not better value than sticking to the outdated 9-5.
Why should we be concerned?
It’s a firm stance on the four-day work week from the government, and while it doesn’t directly impact other sectors, it should be a concern for us, and here’s why.
Political preferences aside, what the government sanctions directly impacts both policy and mindsets on our working practices. While the government has recently agreed on a new flexible working policy, (which by the way wasn’t spearheaded by them but by Anna Whitehouse), their views on the four-day work week sends out a message to other companies who may be on the fence about trialling something more progressive. It says to organisations – “we don’t believe in it, so neither should you!”
Perhaps concern isn’t the word, but I’m certainly saddened by our UK government’s mindset towards better working conditions. When we compare our UK approach to other more progressive countries such as Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand, whose governments all advocate for alternative ways of working; it’s no surprise that the UK keeps falling lower on worldwide engagement reports.
Not surprisingly, local council leaders are furious. And rightly so. Central government has little to no understanding of the lives and communities of people at a regional level. Why should they be dictating policies and practices when they are not the ones closest to the problem? – To me, it’s a perfect example of power distance at play, when those with the greatest power make decisions which are so far removed from those their decisions impact. We need our local councils to be innovating and supporting what’s best for the communities they serve, not following orders from a central authority who don’t have the faintest idea what’s happening at a local level.
Leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council Bridget Smith, has hit back at the UK government saying, “Every decision we make centres on what is best for the communities who elect us. Our offices are open five days a week, and we can be contacted 24 hours a day, seven days a week in an emergency like during last week’s flooding. Local councils should always be free to decide the best way to deliver services for the residents they represent.
“On one hand government tells us to innovate to cut costs and provide higher quality services; on the other they tell us not to innovate to deliver services. We are best placed to make these decisions in our area, which has high private sector wages and housing costs, making it very difficult to attract and retain talented staff we need to deliver for residents and businesses.”
Data on the four-day work UK week trials
The UK’s four-day work week pilot was one of the world’s largest four-day week trials to date. Comprising of 61 companies and around 2,900 workers, the trials took place from June to December 2022.
The UK trial was a success with 56 of the companies continuing the four-day work week, and with 18 confirming the policy is a permanent change.
The benefits reported from the shorter working hours included;
39% of workers were less stressed
71% of workers had a reduced level of burnout
54% felt it was easier to balance work with household responsibilities
60% of workers found an increased ability to combine work with care responsibilities
In terms of business metrics;
Companies revenue stayed broadly the same over the trial period, rising 1.4% on average
The number of staff leaving decreased, dropping by 57% over the trial period
Four-day week is no silver bullet
As a culture coach, I’m fully aware that there is no such thing as one-size fits all when it comes to providing flexibility. I want to make it clear that I’m not pushing for every company to choose a four-day work week, it just doesn’t work for everyone. But greater flexibility in its many variants can work for everyone, business and people included.
If I could wave a magic wand, I would want the UK government to stop their small minded approach to alternative ways of working, and let local councils decide for themselves what works for their operations and their local communities.
The four-day week is no silver bullet, but even piloting such a practice can open up an entire new way of working, and offer up fresh operational insights that may never have been possible without an experiment.
Let’s not get disheartened or put off the mission for better work just because of the limited views of those in an ivory tower, and continue to work collectively to move forward, and make some noise doing it.