The four-day week experiment: A costly gamble for the public sector

by Conor Holohan, media campaign manager


At prime minister’s questions last week, Anthony Browne MP brought the House of Commons’ attention to an experiment taking place in South Cambridgeshire.


South Cambridgeshire District Council (SCDC) has been trialling a four-day working week for their desk staff, and last month the council decided to extend the trial through to next March, potentially with the inclusion of bin men as well. 


The basic concept of the trial is that staff have reduced their working hours to four days’ worth, while receiving no cut in pay. 


The results of the initial trial were not compelling. Our analysis showed that, when compared to before the pandemic, some important key performance indicators (KPIs) were down in SCDC, such as the percentage of residents satisfied with repairs and the average time it takes for the council to answer the phone. Regardless, SCDC pushes on with the four day week. 


The concern is that the residents of South Cambridgeshire will be the canary in the coalmine as other parts of the public sector conduct their own experiments. The Public and Commercial Services Union, with a membership nearing 200,000 across the country, including in many government departments, was set to debate a motion at its recent conference calling for a four-day week. A ten minute rule bill legislating for a four day week has been tabled in Parliament. When it comes to the devolved nations, in Cardiff Bay the Senedd’s petitions committee has supported a public sector trial and the Scottish Government has committed to support pilot schemes for shorter working hours. 

This is a serious problem. The idea of a four-day working week is still in its infancy. Just this February the results landed for what pro-four-day week think tank Autonomy described as the ‘largest four-day working week trial to date’. 61 private companies in the UK took part in the trial between June and December 2022.



The results of the trial are hailed as “resoundingly positive” in the Autonomy report’s conclusions. But it’s important to dig into the details, and consider what we can and can’t draw from it, particularly when it comes to the public sector. 


The Autonomy report says that the companies involved “were not required to rigidly deploy one particular type of working type reduction or four day week, so long as pay was maintained at 100% and employees had a ‘meaningful’ reduction in work time.” 


There are several ways of implementing the four-day week principle. There’s the classic ‘fifth day stoppage’ which is the one we are likely all familiar with - taking Friday off. But there’s also the ‘staggered’ arrangement, where some staff are off Monday and some off Friday. Or the ‘decentralised approach’ which incorporates a range of methods including working five shorter days. There’s the ‘annualised’ approach whereby staff work a 32 hour average working week, calculated on the scale of the year. Finally there was the ‘conditional’ four-day week, which is tied to ongoing performance monitoring. If South Cambridgeshire bosses applied this method, it would surely have been curtains for the trial there. 


What we have, with all of these structures (without even getting into the different approaches to which days would be taken off) is a collection of options with wildly different implications. Local councils, large quangos and government departments should not be the testing ground for this process. There would be teething problems, and meanwhile services would be on the line. What if this was trialled in NHS trusts, for example? A staggered arrangement might see fewer appointments available on the in-demand days, while an annualised approach might create seasonal shortages. The purpose of the public sector is, first and foremost, to deliver services, so to gamble with the quality of those services is doing a disservice to the taxpayers who fund them and the people who rely on them. 


This uncertainty about the effectiveness of a four-day week can be seen in one of the report’s most central findings: Only 18 of these companies are making the change permanent. While most are continuing with the policy for now, it’s clear that the jury is still out for most companies implementing the change, even after several months of data from willing participants. 


It’s also important to note that 66 per cent of the companies had 25 or fewer employees, and only 12 per cent had 101 or more. Just one had around 1,000 staff. South Cambridgeshire District Council, which carried out the first council trial, employed 635 people in March 2021. For comparison, the DVLA employs over 6,000 people, and Sheffield City Council employs approximately 8,600 people in full time and part time positions (excluding those employed by schools). So the mostly small organisations who took part in the landmark private and public four day week trials are not on any comparable scale to the sorts of bodies where the impact could be massive. To assume that these trials can be scaled up to the level of the DVLA with no hit to services is taking a risk at best and being reckless with taxpayers’ money at worst.



TaxPayers’ Alliance research suggests that rolling out a four-day week across the public sector would cost taxpayers around £30 billion per year in lost working time alone. This is the equivalent of a 5p rise in the basic rate of income tax. 


But the true cost to the taxpayer is likely to be even higher. In order to offset the cost, productivity would have to increase by 14.4 per cent, but in the twenty years up to the covid pandemic, public sector productivity rose only by 4.1 per cent total. The choice would then be between worse services or employing more staff to maintain service levels. 


As the BBC has pointed out, the four-day week isn’t an automatic solution for all. One firm that took part, engineering and industrial supplies company Allcap, implemented a bespoke four day week to fit their working patterns, and still ran into problems with burnout and finding cover for absent workers. The firm abandoned the trial two months early at its three main trade sites. Ultimately, Allcap, like a local council or government department, needed five-day cover. Boss Mark Roderick said: “If we could recruit more staff without a massive increase to our wage bill, we’d do it tomorrow. We were just too short-staffed to make it work.” Productivity increases must be truly groundbreaking if the blunt reality of fewer staff hours is to be offset. This illustrates how a four-day week in the public sector would come with a cost to the taxpayer.


In terms of the business case for a four-day week, the private sector trial yielded a 1.4 per cent rise in revenue during the trial. While the public sector isn’t driven by revenue from customers in the same way a business is, this is an unremarkable rise and far short of the output rise you’d want to see to justify the loss in working time in the public sector. 


Glasgow tech firm Cobry switched to a reduced-hour model as a wider package of measures, including a policy giving every employee the right to work from home permanently. Cobry’s chief executive Colin Bryce said: “It has proved very popular with staff, the turkeys didn’t vote for Christmas, none of them were ever going to say ‘no, I think this is rubbish, let’s work six days’.” He did, however, say the jury was out on whether the measures had provided commercial benefits for the company, and said the changes required close monitoring to ensure operations didn’t suffer. Bryce’s comments raise two key points that need to be addressed about a public sector four-day week. 


Firstly, on employee support for a four day week, staff are almost always going to want to work fewer hours. Who wouldn’t? Using this as justification is lunacy. Or at least, should be treated the same way as demands for a 25 per cent pay rise (which is what reducing the working week by one day but keeping pay the same actually works out as). It might well be popular, but is it actually sensible or affordable? 


Secondly, can any positive recorded outcomes for an organisation’s key performance KPIs be proven to be caused by reduced working hours? Like any organisation, productivity at the TaxPayers’ Alliance goes up and down at different times. It’s not obvious to me that we all work especially harder on a bank holiday week. Even then, how many of these trials saw staff raise productivity in full knowledge that they could get themselves a beneficial new working arrangement, only to drop back soon after? 


The four-day week is riddled with uncertainty for organisations that take part in it. The jury is still out on the benefits of such a scheme. But with the quality of public services potentially on the line, this ideological experiment must not become the norm in the public sector. 


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