Sunday, July 21, 2024

Four-day week campaign to launch UK pilot looking at flexible working

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Campaigners for a four-day working week are preparing a new pilot project on flexible working in the hope that the Labour government will be more receptive to changes in how people work.

The pilot project has opened to companies to sign up for a November start, with findings to be presented to the government in the summer of 2025.

The campaign for a four-day working week – crucially with no loss of pay – has been gaining momentum in recent years, particularly after the Covid pandemic lockdowns changed expectations around where and when people work. A total of 61 companies took part in the first UK pilot in 2022. Of those, 54 had maintained it a year and a half later. Other projects have run in Germany, Portugal, Spain and Iceland.

The latest trial will also look at other flexible working policies, including a shorter working week, flexible start and finish times, a nine-day fortnight or compressed hours, when people work the same number of hours but over fewer days.

The new pilot will be run by the UK’s 4 Day Week Campaign and flexible working consultancy Timewise, with training starting in September. Academics at the University of Cambridge, Boston College and the Autonomy Institute will offer research support.

The Conservative UK government was actively hostile to the idea of a four-day week. When South Cambridgeshire district council trialled the change, then local government minister Lee Rowley wrote to the Liberal Democrat-controlled leader asking the council to “end your experiment immediately”. Michael Gove’s levelling up department in December said it would look at using “financial levers” to force councils to fall into line.

Joe Ryle, director of the 4 Day Week Campaign, said he hoped that a Labour government will be more receptive to shifting working practices.

“With a new Labour government, change is in the air and we hope to see employers embracing this change by signing up to our pilot,” he said.

Unlike in 2019, Labour under Keir Starmer did not include a four-day week in its manifesto for last week’s general election. Yet the policy counts as supporters some of the most powerful members of the new cabinet, as well as from the influential Unison union.

The deputy prime minister, Angela Rayner, last year urged businesses to look at the results of the first UK pilot. The energy secretary, Ed Miliband, repeatedly featured the four-day week on a podcast and a book. The work and pensions secretary, Liz Kendall, suggested in an interview last year that Labour would consider the evidence, and that she supported flexible working. And the business secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, is understood to have met advocates of the policy and expressed interest in the idea.

Bron Afon Community Housing, a Welsh social landlord with about 400 staff, is one of the first businesses to sign up to the new pilot, while committing to retaining offices and not dropping standards. Unji Mathur, an executive director at the company, said: “We are impressed by the impact a shorter working week has had on organisations’ performance, wellbeing and retention.

“We see this as an opportunity for everyone working at Bron Afon to improve our services to customers by unleashing innovation, working smarter and improving our work-life balance.”

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A six-day week was the norm in Victorian times, but the rise of trade unions and huge leaps in productivity allowed for the two-day weekend to become the norm. Advocates of the four-day week say it can further improve productivity and staff retention and reduce worker absences.

The South Cambridgeshire trial found that fewer refuse collectors quit their jobs, planning decisions were faster, and calls were answered more quickly. Out of 24 areas of council work analysed by academics at the universities of Cambridge and Salford, 11 areas improved their performance, 11 had little or no change, while two areas worsened: rent collection and the speed of reletting empty council houses.

Ryle said: “As hundreds of British companies and one local council have already shown, a four-day week with no loss of pay can be a win-win for workers and employers.

“The nine to five, five-day working week was invented 100 years ago and is no longer fit for purpose. We are long overdue an update.”

Claire Campbell, chief executive of Timewise, said it wanted to see more “site-based, shift-based workers sign up because this is where innovation is needed most”.

She added that she hoped the change “will benefit worker health and retention”.

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