A Cambridgeshire council is poised to become the first in the UK to trial a four-day week, in a pioneering test of whether the working pattern can be applied successfully in the public sector without disrupting frontline services.
Councillors at South Cambridgeshire district council will vote later this month on whether to pilot a shortened week on the same pay for 470 desk-based workers before possibly rolling it out to bin collectors. Workers at the authority – which operates in a district of more than 100 villages circling Cambridge – are being informed about the trial on Friday.
Workers who process benefits claims, collect council house rents, process planning applications and carry out environmental health inspections would work 30-hour weeks for the first three months of 2023. Service performance would be monitored and the council said the trial would become permanent only if there was no drop in standards and there was an improvement in staff wellbeing.
Refuse collectors have been left out of the initial trial because of the difficulty of emptying the same amount of bins in 20% less time without adding staff. They may be included later next year.
The move to follow dozens of private companies in attempting a shortened week has been prompted in part by a recruitment crisis, blighting councils across the country, with years of relatively low pay in local government deterring applicants. Between January and March, only about half of South Cambridgeshire’s vacancies were filled.
More than half of councils in England and Wales report having insufficient staff to run all services normally, according to the Local Government Association. In July, the organisation’s head of workforce, Naomi Cooke, said: “We are the lowest paying part of the public sector – I don’t suggest we start mentioning that on job ads, but it is true.”
Bridget Smith, the leader of South Cambridgeshire district council, said: “It could be truly groundbreaking for local councils nationally. We only filled around half our vacancies during the first few months of this year and using temporary agency staff in these office roles costs us more than £2m a year. We know that if we instead filled those roles permanently, it would only cost around £1m a year. As we look for solutions to these issues, these proposals suggest a robust, evidence-based trial for three months. Of course, it must be a trial that works for our residents and businesses too.”
Joe Ryle, the director of the 4 Day Week campaign, said: “This move could benefit thousands of workers, improve productivity, and help to tackle the job recruitment crisis in local government. We hope this trial, if approved, results in many more councils across the country embracing the four-day week.”
Last week, Atom Bank, which has run one of the largest four-day week trials so far in the UK, said it was continuing with the working pattern. It reported a 49% increase in applications for roles, an increase in its measure of “customer goodwill” suggesting service levels rose slightly and an increase in staff engagement.
Seventy other companies – from brewers to software designers – embarked on a six-month trial in June, although there have been reports of some struggling to adapt. There are also concerns that gains in wellbeing made as workers use their extra day off for leisure, to care for loved ones or to rest, may dissipate when they begin to take it for granted.
Government-backed four-day week trials are also due to begin later this year in Spain and Scotland.