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A four-day working week: A Canadian council’s perspective

If you stated your support for a four-day working week a few years ago, you were seen as being in the political extremes, but now it is becoming far more mainstream.

Just last week, around 30 companies in the UK began a four-day working week trial, which will last for six months.

Internationally, a trial initiated by Reykjavik City Council and the Government of Iceland between 2015-2019 was found to be an “overwhelming success”.

In North America, a small municipality on Nova Scotia’s east coast is making waves in this new way of thinking.

The Municipality of the District of Guysborough, which is located about 170 miles to the east of the provincial capital, Halifax, introduced a four-day work week in June 2020 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking to PSE News, the authority’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), Barry Carroll says that when Covid-19 hit, they moved to a hybrid two-day onsite and two-day offsite system, alternating in different teams (A and B).

After about six weeks of this, Barry says that it was working so successfully that he thought that an alternative work practice could be implemented full-time via a pilot programme.

Barry’s thinking on this issue resonated with wider national conversations at the time, he explains:

“Ironically at the time, the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, was doing a news conference on Covid and he said, ‘maybe this is a time for us to look around and look at options, like a four-day work week, and maybe we need to change as a society’.”

Before making the changes, the Municipality of the District of Guysborough anonymously surveyed staff to hear their thoughts on exploring a four-day working week on a trial basis, in which 96% responded that they would be in favour.

The nine-month trial kicked off on June 15, 2020, but how did the scheme work?

At the start of the pandemic, staff at the authority were split into two teams, Team A and Team B, with the former working Monday to Thursday and the latter employed from Tuesday to Friday.

A common argument against a four-day working week is that it will reduce work hours, however, it has had the opposite effect in Guysborough.

Prior to the trial, staff worked 36 hours per week, but that has now increased to 40 hours.

With the six-month trial ending in March 2021, councillors on the Municipality of the District of Guysborough voted to keep employees on a four-day working week, which will be reviewed after three years.

Despite it not being made officially permanent, Barry says “he does get the sense that it’s permanent”.

He gets this feeling as it is not only supported by the municipality’s staff, but also the area’s residents as well.

“We did a public survey. We did it through social media, and I think it was 80-90% of the people who responded [were positive about the changes], which is very unusual in any form of government, in particular local government.

“We thought when we would survey the public, they would see it as employees getting perks and they wouldn't support it.

“They’ve seen it in the big picture, what it means for young families, what it means for people that have day care, have kids and all that sort of stuff. So, we're very surprised and happy to see the public response.”

A common concern about a four-day working week in the public sector is that it will directly impact public services, but Barry says it has not in his district.

“We're open every day, from eight to five, before it was 8:30 to 16:30 and we've extended our hours that were available to the public and we don't close lunchtimes and people are essentially working through their lunch, to take a half an hour for lunch.”

When asked if a four-day working week, especially in a council setting, could work well outside of Canada, Barry says that he “doesn’t get the sense that it’s unique to Canada”, but acknowledges that the key ingredient is getting the workforce to “buy into it”.

“In the end, it's about progress, productivity and if you can get done what you did in either a 35 or 40-hour work week and you can do it over four days, then I think that's all that really matters,” he adds.

Barry says that he stills sees the “bounce in people’s step” due to the new way of working and says that some staff around the ages of 60 have told him that they would retire if the five-day working week was ever brought back.

According to Barry, it has also brought a “different feeling to the workplace” and speaking about the views of employees, he says:

“The young families, parents that have young kids, they are loving it. One less day of day care, they have the flexibility on Fridays or Mondays to have dentist appointments for their kids or doctor’s appointments, take their car to the garage or whatever it is.

“I think it's made a big difference in people's lives on a positive side. Mental health has improved, I think, because of that.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen work patterns change, with many workers now seeking greater flexibility in their job roles and a four-day working week has often been seen as one of the ways to provide staff with this sought-after improved work-life balance.

As the Municipality of the District of Guysborough has shown, it is possible to implement a four-day work without a loss in productivity and with the current trial ongoing in the UK, it may be time for some local authorities here to consider going the way of Guysborough.

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