Colleges are open to trialling a four-day week for support staff in a move that could provide a radical new template to workplaces across Scotland.
Union leaders at Unison told The Herald that further education (FE) institutions had expressed an interest in running a pilot, perhaps at an individual establishment. It could see an increase in the length of the working day, with pro-rata arrangements for parttime staff.
Senior figures at the Colleges Scotland Employers’ Association have confirmed they are “receptive to exploring the possibility” of a trial.
Hopes are high that reform, if agreed, would lead to a boost in productivity and wellbeing, although The Herald understands there is concern within the FE sector about how such a scheme might operate in practice.
The move comes as Unison, Unite and the GMB face what are expected to be complex negotiations on pay and conditions for those employees – among them student support officers, HR workers, librarians, technicians and maintenance staff – who do not hold lecturing positions.
Union bosses have drawn up a 2021/22 pay claim document that calls for progress on a range of measures as FE establishments emerge from the disruption wrought by Covid-19. In addition to a four-day week strategy, these include a £2,000 consolidated flat rate payment to cover increases in the cost of living, agreement on a national pay structure, homeworking allowances and staff career development days.
John Gallacher, head of bargaining at Unison Scotland, stressed talks had a long way to go but indicated there were grounds for optimism.
“The initial response from Scottish colleges on proposals for a four-day week for their support staff was not completely negative,” he told The Herald.
“College employers have also expressed an interest in the proposals in terms of running a four-day week pilot, perhaps at an individual college in Scotland. Unison is, in partnership with Unite and GMB, pursuing negotiations to secure a four-day week for support staff at FE colleges and we are looking for a positive outcome to the negotiations.
“We are looking for the introduction of such a change with no loss of earnings for staff. It means there should be no cost implications for colleges.
“It would mean the length of the working day, or of certain working days in the week, increasing. But what I’m hoping is that the experience of the pandemic – which has shown that employees can be highly productive and innovative at home – will have made college employers less scared of the idea of a four-day week.”
Similar proposals have taken root in a number of countries, including Iceland, Spain and New Zealand. The union pay claim document also notes Glasgow-based company Itison is “currently piloting a fourday week with its staff” and that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon “pledged ten million pounds worth of support” to employers who were willing to undertake a trial.
Mr Gallacher added: “I think there’s a lot more trust in the idea that support staff will fulfil their contractual obligations at home, in terms of hours, without supervision, thus making the notion of a four-day week feasible.”
Alex Linkston, chair of the Colleges Scotland Employers’ Association, said: “Following a proposal from the support staff trade unions we’re receptive to exploring the possibility of piloting a four-day week.
“Colleges are great places to work – many roles already offer flexible and hybrid working, and support staff have played a huge role in a safe return to learning for students across the country.
“College staff have done great work to get students through the pandemic and have adapted really well to different circumstances and ways of working. We’re committed to making colleges an even better place to work, and we’re pleased to engage with our trade union colleagues in all parts of this discussion.”
The Scottish Government declined to comment directly on the negotiations. A spokesman said: “The pandemic has served to intensify interest in and support for more flexible working practices, which could include a shift to a four-day – or shorter – working week. Reductions in the working week might help sustain more and better jobs, and enhance wellbeing.
“We are in the early stages of designing a £10 million pilot that will help companies explore the benefits and costs of moving to a four-day working week.
“The pilot will allow us to develop a better understanding of the implications of a broader shift to a shorter working week across the economy.”