In the picturesque county of Cambridgeshire, where time-honoured traditions meet the heartbeat of a thriving, modern society, and where innovation and progress are as woven into the fabric of life as the centuries-old architecture, a storm is brewing and highlighting the profound divide in our understanding of work and the future that is unfolding.
South Cambridgeshire District Council has been experimenting – very successfully – with a four-day workweek, recognising the potential to enhance employee wellbeing and work/life balance, without compromising efficiency or service delivery to local residents.
One would think this would be a triumph to be celebrated and used as a blueprint for other local authorities and even private sector employers in the UK and around the world.
Unfortunately, the scheme looks set to come to an abrupt halt after government ministers criticised the scheme. While the council offices remained open five days a week and the initial trial saw performance generally maintained, and in some cases improved, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said the scheme should not be adopted elsewhere, on the grounds that it does not offer value for money for residents.
In the corridors of power, our central government ministers are clinging to the past with a dogged determination, fighting progress with threats and spewing rhetoric that forces us to ask: what is the purpose of work in the 21st century and is it time for a transformation long overdue?
Progress and wellbeing
At the heart of this transformation is wellbeing, which is becoming somewhat of a modern catch-all to replace ‘employee engagement’. It includes mental and physical wellness, as well as work/life balance.
Despite all the strides we continue to make, it seems that the vast majority of people still cling to outdated beliefs about work.
Embracing the changing tide that is the future of work, requires us all to challenge traditional beliefs about the nine-to-five grind.
The current five-day working week model is over 100 years old. In fact, when it began it was once quite the revolution itself.
Revolution and evolution
The industrial revolution brought significant changes in the way people used to work. Factories and the manufacturing industry demanded longer working hours, and working conditions were often gruelling and unsafe.
The typical six-day workweek consisted of daily shifts of 10 to 16 hours and the need for a change soon became apparent. The push for employee wellbeing and better working conditions gave rise to the five-day workweek.
We have to ask ourselves whether, in a world characterised by technology and automation, flexible work arrangements, a global talent crisis and a shifting understanding of what constitutes ‘good work’, is it not perhaps time for another revolution in the interests of wellbeing?
The persistence of outdated beliefs
Ironically, despite all the strides we continue to make, it seems that the vast majority of people still cling to outdated beliefs about work.
The narrative persists that ‘hard work’ equates with ‘goodness’, and anyone seeking an alternative, is branded as ‘lazy’ or a ‘freeloader’ or some ‘communist revolutionary’.
It’s time we ask a fundamental question: what is the purpose of work in the 21st century? What are we paying our people for?
These misconceptions have been nurtured by media advertising and societal norms and romanticised in movies and TV shows for decades now.
Recent calls for an end to flexible or hybrid work, as well as this insistence on maintaining the traditional five-day workweek, serve as a stark reminder of the general resistance to change.
Resistance to change
Indeed, speaking about the government’s back-pedalling on the Council four-day working week scheme, Leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, Bridget Smith commented: “On one hand government tells us to innovate to cut costs and provide higher quality services; on the other, they tell us not to innovate to deliver services.”
The heart of this resistance seems to lie in an unwillingness to evolve, a fear of the unknown and a reluctance to shift paradigms. There’s a prevailing notion that more hours in the office, somehow equate to greater productivity and commitment – a belief that is increasingly at odds with the research, the will of people and the realities of modern work.
What are we really paying our people for?
It’s time we ask a fundamental question: what is the purpose of work in the 21st century? What are we paying our people for? Is it merely about hours at a desk, or should we prioritise output and the efficient delivery of goods and services to taxpayers and clients?
Perhaps we are finally at another pivotal point in the history of work, where it’s time to prioritise wellbeing and work/life balance.
If we look at the South Cambridgeshire example, sickness rates fell by a third, staff turnover was reduced by 36% and complaints about services were down. The Council also suggested that there was strong evidence the new work pattern helped fill hard-to-recruit posts, saving money by avoiding paying high numbers of agency staff.
It’s abundantly clear that it’s time for us to refocus our lens on the changing landscape of work and the increased need to protect the wellbeing of the global workforce.
Shifting paradigms for a modern workforce
First and foremost, it’s essential to debunk myths about the four-day workweek. We are not talking about services not being available or about offices being closed on certain days.
What we are looking at, instead, is reducing working hours and – wherever reasonable and possible – giving employees more flexibility to choose how and when they complete their work. It’s simply a restructuring of current work arrangements to ensure improved wellbeing and better work-life balance for employees, without compromising on efficiency or service delivery.
It’s also a great opportunity to introduce job-share arrangements and mentoring opportunities, improve diversity and equity, and create more robust succession planning.
There are so many examples of companies – including home furnishing retailers Dunelm, Samsung and Panasonic – who have successfully made the transition to a four-day workweek. Across the board, it’s been widely reported to have improved employee wellbeing, with no negative impacts on productivity (quite the opposite, actually).
Perhaps we are finally at another pivotal point in the history of work, where it’s time to prioritise wellbeing and work/life balance, while leveraging technology and automation to our advantage and focusing on deliverables and output, instead of ‘time at work’.
A time for change
More than a century after the labour uprisings that led to the current five-day workweek, it’s time for us to break free from the chains of outdated beliefs about work.
We cannot bow down to ministers who are stalling progress by clinging to the past. Organisations outside of their control should take this opportunity to step up and prove them wrong.
We need to reevaluate the purpose of work in the digital age and adapt to the evolving needs and preferences of the global workforce.
Flexible work arrangements – including the four-day workweek – present a beacon of change, offering the prospect of increased efficiency, employee wellbeing and improved services to the taxpayers and clients who truly matter.
As we stand on this precipice of change, embracing a more progressive and inclusive future of work is not just an option, but a necessity for progress and prosperity.
We must once again challenge the norm and advocate for a more balanced, efficient and satisfying work arrangements for all. It’s a revolution we can no longer afford to ignore.
If you enjoyed this, read: Ways to work smarter, not harder during the four-day week.