Government says public sector four-day week should ‘end immediately’ – what do businesses think?

Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has told councils to ‘cease all trials’, but local authorities and companies disagree

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Councils that trial a four-day week may be “put on notice” by the government, which says it does not “offer value for money for residents”.

The announcement comes after South Cambridgeshire District Council became the first local authority to begin trialling a four-day week earlier this year.

In September, the council said that it will be extending the trial until March after it said the trial had been a success.

The minister for local government Lee Rowley said: “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.

“Those councils who continue to disregard this guidance are now on notice that the government will take necessary steps in the coming months ahead to ensure that this practice is ended within local government.”

However, the guidance is non-binding, meaning the government cannot legally stop the moves.

Instead, government departments may “raise concerns” with any authority that implements a four day week, monitor performance and “consider options to correct declining performance”.

A path to innovation?

The council has argued that the shorter working week has helped save money and tackle long-standing worker shortages that have been seen across both the public and private sector.

Bridget Smith, leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, highlighted that it had been experiencing significant worker shortages which it had not been able to fill.

She said that before the four-day week trial, it was spending around £2m a year on 23 agency staff to cover the shortages. Since undertaking the trial, It has been able to fill 13 of these posts and the council expects to spend “significantly less” on agency staff covering vacancies this year.

The council’s services have remained five days a week – extending to seven in “emergency” situations like flooding – with employees working different clusters of days. 

It all comes down, in Smith’s opinion, to a willingness to innovate.

Smith said: “On the 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.”

Henry Stewart, chief happiness officer at management and leadership programme firm Happy, told People Management that the firm’s involvement in the four-day week trial had been so successful, it has continued beyond the experiment. 

“For Happy, we had two KPIs: was our customer satisfaction as high as before the trial and did we get as much done? Our customer satisfaction has gone up, to the highest level it has ever been. And we have increased our level of sales by 20 per cent, with no increase in staff. It is a win-win.”

Stewart questioned the government’s stance: “Where is their desire for innovation? Why do they think we need to do what we have always done? If new ways of working are better, let them be happy. Let us create more innovation.”

Balancing public responsibility and flexible working

In September, it was reported that the Scottish government was also planning to trial a four-day week in its civil service.

The announcement was heavily criticised at the time by the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA), which said: “A four-day week with no loss of pay will mean either worse services or a huge cost to taxpayers if the promised productivity gains don’t pay off. “

But responding to the comments made by the TPA, Gordon McFarlane, assistant director at Leicestershire County Council and president of the Public Services People Managers Association (PPMA) said in line with the private sector, it is responsible practice for the public sector to consider whether public services can be delivered through flexible working practices.

He told People Management: “In a post Covid world, employee expectations have changed. As well as the obvious attraction elements such as pay, job satisfaction, career prospects, etc, people are increasingly looking for flexibility in how, where and when they work.” 

He said while South Cambrideshire's four-day week pilot showed “for them, it is possible to balance these priorities”, he also said that the public accountability element meant that local authorities should do what’s best for their constituents and not have a blanket approach to the four-day week.  

“While impact evidence from this small-scale trial looks promising, in my view the four-day week needs to be approached with caution,” McFarlane said.

“Business needs have to come first and while it could be an aid to recruitment and retention, a model that works for staff cannot be at the expense of service provision.” 

Flexible working options might be more appropriate for the needs of other local authorities he said, and noted most councils already offer a range of flexible working options at an individual level without offering the four-day week, including policies such as a compressed working week, nine-day fortnights, job sharing and flexible retirement schemes.

Consequently, HR must work closely with stakeholders to design ways of working that “meet the needs of the business, teams and individual employees”. 

McFarlane said: “A one size fits all approach isn’t effective because every team works differently, shaped by business needs and how they interact with other services. To get flexible working right requires input from all stakeholders to tackle what is a multifaceted challenge.

“Flexible working practices are becoming the norm in the private sector," he said, “[but] a model like this needs to be very carefully thought through in the context of delivering public services. It’s worth remembering that we’re still embedding the really significant long-term cultural changes in the move to a hybrid world”.

Watch the People Management TV episode which asks whether the four-day week is worth the hype