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470 council staff to trial 4-day week

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South Cambs Council leader Bridget Smith
South Cambs Council leader Bridget Smith

A three-month trial of a four-day week could begin in January for around 470 desk-based staff at South Cambridgeshire District Council.

A decision will be made by the council’s Cabinet on September 12.

Council leader Bridget Smith said: “The trial would be all about seeing if a four-day week has the same positive impact on productivity, staff wellbeing and recruitment in local government, as seen elsewhere.

“As a council we are leading the way on this; it could be truly ground-breaking 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 £2million a year.

“We know that if we instead filled those roles permanently, it would only cost around £1million 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.”

Cllr Smith added: “Attracting and retaining staff is an issue for most councils.

“Therefore, along with lots of organisations from around the world, we think this is something that is worth investigating.

“Not only could it help with the wellbeing and retention of our existing staff, but I am hugely keen that we open ourselves up as an employer to a more diverse workforce.

“As a carer to my 92-year-old mother, I realise just how costly caring can be.

“The same can of course be said of childcare. If we can reduce the burden of these sorts of costs, which will also help with the cost of living, we could become an employer of choice for far more people who for very valid reasons simply cannot work the standard 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday.”

She says the pilot is similar being carried out of over 3,300 staff continues at more than 70 UK organisations.

The council believes that experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic mean people now think differently about work-life priorities; nationally and locally it is harder than ever to recruit and retain staff.

A report outlines how, if Cabinet members agree to the trial, the council will closely monitor what impact it has on services for residents and businesses.

A council spokesperson said: “These service levels cannot drop if a four-day week is to be considered as a viable option in the longer term.

“To monitor service levels during the trial, the council would use its standard set of statistics which are regularly updated.”

These keep a check on things like how long it takes the council to process benefits claims, council house rent collections, how fast planning applications are determined, staff turnover, call answering times and more.

Industry-standard health and wellbeing surveys will also be used to measure success and be compared against the results from a survey carried out last month (August 2022) before the four-day week trial was announced to staff.

The next steps, which could include a longer trial period, would be dependent on the performance of council services during the first three months of 2023.      

As part of the trial, the council would also look to extend the hours that it is open to the public via a soon-to-be-launched webchat service or Teams / Zoom meetings.

For more than a year, the council has only been able to fill around eight out of every ten (or fewer) of its vacancies.

Between January and March 2022, only around half were filled.

There are currently 23 agency staff covering office-based roles, which should ideally be filled by people in permanent positions. Over a whole year, these agency staff could cost the council more than £2million.

“If we filled all these posts with permanent staff, it would only cost around £1million per year,” said the spokesperson.

“Not being able to fill vacant posts – or switching between agency staff to cover them – is also disruptive to services for residents.

“For example, when case officers change during the process of a planning application, it can cause delays and frustration because a lot of context and institutional memory is lost.

“This has led to the council looking at the viability of a four-day week through a proposed trial between January and March next year.

“A four-day week is when people work one less day per week but still get paid the same salary. It is not the same as compressed hours, which is working the traditional 37-hour week over four long days.”

A four-day week, which for a full-time employee at the council would consist of 30 hours, can make an organisation stand out from others and be more attractive to talent. It is also seen as a tangible incentive to encourage staff to stay.

“Another aspiration of the trial is to investigate whether it would help the council to attract a more diverse workforce,” said the spokesperson.

“For example, for those families where childcare costs can be a big blocker from working, or those people with caring responsibilities, it could be a more attractive option than the traditional five-day working week model.

“This is because the cost of childcare or caring could be reduced, which can also help support wider cost of living rises.”

The proposals that will be discussed at the Council’s Cabinet meeting on Monday 12 September 2022 recommend that a three-month trial for desk-based staff takes place between January and March 2023.

There are around 470 staff at the council who would be able to take part. There would be a three-month planning period beforehand. If successful, a trial of the council’s blue-collar workers, such as bin collection crews, would follow later next year.

The 4 Day Week Campaign started a trial involving about 70 companies in the UK back in June this year (2022). That trial covers around 3,300 employees. There are also trials either underway or soon to be started in the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Research from Henley Business School shows that those organisations offering a four-day week benefit from an improved ability to attract and retain talent.

Numerous studies and trials by big companies such as Microsoft in Japan and Buffer in the USA have shown that a four-day week increases productivity.

Joe Ryle, Director of the 4 Day Week Campaign, said: “The decision by South Cambridgeshire District Council to outline plans to become the first ever UK local authority to trial a four-day week is historic and should be applauded.

“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.”

Cabinet members will decide whether to proceed with the three-month trial of a four-day working week on Monday 12 September 2022.

If the trial is approved, the council’s employment and staffing committee will receive update reports and be asked to report back with recommendations following the end of the trial.

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