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Instead of shutting down four-day week trials, we should do more

Pilots allow organisations to test and develop innovative workplace solutions in a low-risk way, before committing to roll out more widely.
There should be more, not less.

By Claire Campbell, CEO

The decision by South Cambridgeshire District Council (SCDC) to trial a four-day working week during 2023, and to extend it to include refuse workers, has created a flurry of comment – not all of it positive. Critics including the TaxPayers’ Alliance have blasted it as “simply unacceptable”, and the local government minister, Lee Rowley, backed by Michael Gove, has asked the council to “end your experiment immediately.”

So, are they right? Unsurprisingly, we don’t think so.

As we’ve noted previously the four-day working week is a hot topic in the flexible working sphere. 4-Day Week Global’s six-month UK pilot involved 61 companies, and produced encouraging results. And we know from our discussions that other organisations, including other councils, have been considering their own trials.

However, the media attention SCDC have received is likely to make some organisations wary of following suit. And that’s a shame, not least because what makes their pilot particularly interesting to those of us with a social agenda as well as a business one, is that it involves frontline employees – a group who have been largely left out of the remote working revolution, and are at risk of becoming ‘flex have-nots’ as a result.

Pilots are a low-risk way to innovate, with potentially big gains

What some of the more negative commentators appear to be missing is that SCDC aren’t just implementing this way of working on a whim; they’re piloting it and assessing the results before deciding whether to take it further.

The data from the initial trial, which involved 450 mainly desk-based workers, indicated that there are concrete benefits to be had, such as recruiting into hard-to-fill roles and reducing agency worker spend (by around £550,000 at September this year). And it is only after evaluating this data, which was independently reviewed, that SCDC decided to expand it.

And that, surely, is the point of a pilot. It allows you to take an innovative concept – which reducing people’s working hours with no change in pay certainly is – and test what works, and what doesn’t, on a small scale. As a result, you can keep the good stuff, fix any flaws, and generally refine your plans before rolling them out more widely.

It’s certainly a model we believe in here at Timewise; our Innovation Unit has carried out pilots in a range of sectors including construction, nursing, retail and teaching. And we have also shown that the changes required to make flexible working more widely available can pay for themselves in just a few years, through reduced sickness absence and improved staff retention.

Pilots can also reveal unexpected benefits – for businesses and for society

Additionally, while some outcomes might be expected – such as a four-day working week boosting retention – pilots can also reveal less predictable benefits.

For example, an employment services provider we have spoken to has found that neurodiverse jobseekers are much more comfortable coming into the office for interviews on Mondays and Fridays, when only half the staff team are in, and the office is quieter. And a retailer we have worked with, who is trialling a four-day week, has watched their deputy managers step up and develop confidence and skills on the days they are solely responsible for the store, strengthening their succession pipeline.

It’s not just the businesses who are experiencing these unexpected benefits, either. Flexible working pilots have revealed a range of positive societal outcomes, from older employees using their extra time off to look after their grandchildren, and parents enjoying admin-free quality time at the weekends, to millennials using their fifth weekday to volunteer at, or set up, community projects.

A pilot’s impact can therefore stretch way beyond the organisation to the community, in ways that may not have been factored in from the beginning, but are likely to continue once it’s over.

Let’s not cancel innovative pilots – let’s do more of them

For all of these reasons, we believe that well-researched, well-scoped pilots are a vital tool for those of us who want to change workplaces for the better. So we’ll continue to widen access to flexible options by trialling new ways of working, and sharing what we’ve learned so that others can benefit.

And we’ll keep championing those organisations who have the vision to explore, test and refine innovative solutions to their workforce challenges – and are willing to speak up and widen the debate.

Published November 2023

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