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Seductive lessons from the trials of shorter working weeks

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Seductive lessons from the trials of shorter working weeks

South Cambridgeshire. Not a place usually associated with seismic shocks that could redefine day-to-day life as we know it. 

But the area’s district council is one organisation trialling a fundamental change to working culture, one that many believe is long overdue.

The local authority has just begun a three-month trial (January-March) of the four-day working week. Same work, same pay, but done in four days, instead of five.

They are the first council to test the new model, with almost 500 desk-based staff involved.

A UK-wide pilot scheme trialling a four-day week kicked off in June, initially involving 70 companies. 

The driving forces behind the scheme, being run by 4 Day Week, seem like no brainers.

Improved work-life balance for staff. Better mental health and wellbeing. Lower commuting and childcare costs. Environmental benefits from less commuting.

Graphic with numbers 1-4 with hearts indicating the benefits:Improved work-life balance for staff. Better mental health and wellbeing. Lower commuting and childcare costs. Environmental benefits from less commuting.

But with UK work-life trapped in the vice-like grip of five-day culture, the transition was never likely to be straightforward.

Early results from the initial trials paint a positive picture, however. 

Productivity was found to have stayed the same – or even improved – while many of the companies said they were planning to make the four-day week a permanent change. 


In South Cambridgeshire, the approach is also being used to help tackle other organisational headaches. 

Recruitment and talent retention is proving tough, with knock-on effects for paying big bills for agency staff. 

Their preparation for the trial has involved some huge decisions and a leap into the unknown. 

“There’s no playbook here – we are the first”

Gareth Bell, the council’s Communications and Communities Service Manager, told the LGComms Academy event.

The experiences they have shared – and that of the other organisations that have taken part in the four-day trials so far – make for fascinating reading. 

They show admirable understanding of the needs and expectations of a post-Covid workforce, while being willing to innovate and shape their organisations in a whole new way. 

But should these approaches just be limited to those involved in the four-day trials? 

Let’s look at five lessons all organisations can take from the four-day story so far. 


1.    We’re all adults here  

One of the standout pillars of the South Cambridgeshire approach is delivering it through social contract. 

In other words, it’s about trust. Treating people like grown-ups. Allowing them to help lead and shape the transformation.  

Honesty has been paramount in talking to staff about the four-day trial, said Gareth:

“It is fine not to have all the answers.”

When you treat people like adults and are open with them, they tend to reciprocate. 


Treat people like adults and be open with them, and they reciprocate text in heart graphic with cherry illustration

2.    What’s the big idea? 

Innovation and creativity are things often talked about, but not so often carried through. 

South Cambridgeshire and the other organisations trialling the four-day approach are walking the walk. 

They’re prepared to try something genuinely transformational to address their organisational pain points and improve life for their people.

As Gareth described, four-day weeks aren’t about cramming five days’ work into four. It’s about genuinely rethinking processes, policies, where time is wasted.

Which brings us nicely on to…


3.    Meeting the problem halfway

Ah, meetings. The necessary evil and time-sucking vortex. 

The subject of meetings comes up repeatedly in discussions around streamlining workdays in the trial – with good cause. 

Staff are being challenged to only invite people who absolutely need to be at meetings – or consider whether they really need it at all. Maybe that meeting really should have been an email. 

However, it’s a balancing act – some workers have reported feeling undermined or overlooked by being uninvited from meetings. 

But almost any organisation could benefit from reviewing its approach to meetings if they want to look at efficient use of people’s time. 


4.    The measure of success

South Cambridgeshire have been absolutely clear from the get-go how the success of the trial will be judged. 

Baseline measures have been established, with a health and wellbeing survey and monitoring of key council KPIs (call wait times, claim handling etc) in place. 

Qualitative measures are also being valued, with mechanisms for colleague feedback being provided throughout the trial. 

Whatever it is you’re setting out to achieve, having clear, measurable objectives and an understanding of where you want to reach is non-negotiable. 


5.    Human after allHuman contact and conversation is still needed to form bonds and feel supported text, in red heart with aubergine illustration

Contact with colleagues – face-to-face or virtual – is something that began to be impacted by Covid and the remote working revolution that has followed. 

Teams taking part in the four-day trial have reported that one of the things to take the biggest hit in a condensed week has been personal connections. 

In an increasingly remote working existence, we need to remember that we all need human contact and conversation to help form bonds and feel supported. 

Some organisations in the trial have taken more deliberate steps to re-energise these connections and collaboration. It’s something worth considering, no matter how many days of the week you work. 


So, if the thought of a bit of four-day is titillating, why wait for the trials to reach their climax before you start bedding in the lessons? 


By James Morton

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