UK Government ministers have published non-statutory advice, which serves as a formal warning to local government in England that it does not support a four-day working week at council level over concerns it does not provide value for money for taxpayers. David Sheppard, Myles Thomas and Kelis Fencott report on the advice below.
This follows a stand-off between the UK Government and South Cambridgeshire District Council, who have been pioneering a four-day working week. The Council has been issued with a Best Value Notice because of its trial of paying employees the same salaries for working 20% fewer hours. Contrary to the government’s concerns, the council has reported improvements in recruitment and significant savings on temporary staffing costs. The council has also commented that the trial affecting office workers and refuse-collection has had no negative impact on service delivery, which is likely to be the main concern for constituents, who elect local government officials (separately to ministers in central government).
Those in the public sector are responsible for spending taxpayer funding, and there is a statutory obligation to secure value for money by adherence to the “Best Value Duty”: ‘making arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way in which its functions are exercised, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness.’
A four-day working week is a contentious topic, much like remote working – which has seen pushback from executives in certain companies and parts of the media. Advocates for flexible working are vociferous about its benefits, especially because it prevents a levelling opportunity for women in work and those with caring responsibilities. The four-day working week is potentially another step forward in this regard and presents more flexible opportunities for workers.
Last year, 61 organisations in the UK committed to a trial for a four-day working week. A study completed by the University of Cambridge over a broad range of industries showed interesting results, highlighting the benefits of a 4-day working week for both employee and employer. According to the research, working four days per week minimised stress and illness in the workplace and improved worker retention. When compared to the start of the experiment, 71% of employees reported lower levels of “burnout,” and 39% reported lower levels of stress. Over the same period the previous year, researchers discovered a 65% decrease in sick days and a 57% decrease in the number of employees leaving participating organisations.
According to the study of the results submitted to UK lawmakers, 92% of companies participating in the UK pilot initiative (56 out of 61) aim to keep the four-day work week, with 18 companies confirming the change as permanent.
The UK Government has taken the unusual step of publicly warning councils, via the Minister for Local Government, Lee Rowley, that local authorities should not seek to adopt the four-day working week, and those adopting it already should “end the practice immediately”. Mr Rowley has also warned that Westminster is putting local councils on notice that the government will take steps to ensure the practice is ended within local government. This therefore has the potential to create conflict between local and central government and create political dividing lines ahead of a local government elections in England in May 2024, and a general election scheduled to take place by January 2025.
Are you considering a change in your working pattern?
If you are thinking about changing to a four-day workweek, there are some important considerations.
Firstly, where employers are considering changes to employment contracts, they should discuss these with employees and confirm the changes in writing.
Employers should also consider the impact on their part-time workers. Part-time workers must not be treated less favourably than full-time workers. A possible suggestion in ensuring parity with full-time workers is to offer part-time employees a 20% pro-rata reduction in their hours, similar to the 20% decrease offered to full-time employees. Before making any such revisions, employers should seek appropriate legal advice to ensure changes are enacted appropriately.
We would also recommend, as with any significant shift in working practices, that steps are taken to ensure employees remain satisfied with the changes, and that employees are not being encouraged to overwork and possibly become burnt out. It is also worth noting that shifts in working practices will not be for everyone, and care should be taken not to impose changes on employees.
We will need to keep up to date on how the landscape of the four-day working week progresses. It appears that most employers and employees, especially those who have trialled the method, speak positively of the practice.
If we can help with anything, from dealing with flexible working requests to navigating the shift to or away from a four-day working week, please get in touch. See the team’s previous article for detailed considerations on the 4-day work week here.