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Bureaucracy beats common sense again

Updated: May 3

Bureaucracy in organisations flexible work
Photo Unplash by Susan Q Yin

Imagine a government organisation that:

  • Saved £400,000 (€467,000)

  • Is finally filling hard-to-fill roles

  • Improved response times and service delivery

  • Boosted employee morale and retention

And now the government is threatening potential financial penalties unless they return to the old way of working.

South Cambridgeshire District Council is piloting a four-day work week for its employees. The trial has resulted in positive outcomes, including:

  • Reduced reliance on agency staff: The council has saved £400,000 by filling fewer hard-to-fill roles with agency workers.

  • Improved performance: The contact centre is exceeding traditional response times.

  • Maintained service levels: Despite the shorter work week, 99% of bins are consistently collected, and 100% of emergency housing repairs are completed within 24 hours.

However, the government is reportedly pressuring the council to abandon the trial.

In a world where we see layers of bureaucracy killing innovation by death of a thousand paper cuts, I have to wonder if the structures that are there to support us are instead grinding us to a halt. While this particular example is based in the UK, there are numerous examples in Ireland.

When I talk to business leaders looking to access government support, I hear that it becomes so cumbersome they give up, usually after weeks, months or even years of knocking on doors and huge investments go to waste. I’ve seen it first-hand, I’ve been there too.

I see it in businesses that depend on government organisations to get their work done, who experience months or even years of delays that crippled their business.

It’s infuriating. 

It's not because they're bad people in these government organisations. Nobody sets out to create layers of bureaucracy that build up like plaque. It’s caused by process after process, piled on top of the other  that becomes almost impossible to unpick

However, years of risk mitigation and lack of incentive to create efficiency and excellence means we’re left with government organisations that are slow, unwieldy, uninspiring and in many cases, not fit for purpose. 

South Cambridge Council has found a way to experiment and trial new ways of working that so far indicates they can attract and retain quality employees that can deliver better results through a four day work week. 

It's not the first time that traditionally bureaucratic heavy organisations have adopted new ways of working to revolutionise the industry.

Breaking the mould in traditional industries

Buurtzorg, a Dutch home healthcare provider, is an iconic example of defying expectations. This wholly self-managed organisation, where employees have a high degree of autonomy, boasts:

  • 30% higher patient satisfaction rates

  • employee turnover and absenteeism reduction by two thirds

This is in the highly regulated space of healthcare provision. This is not a small scale operation where we can get away without layers of hierarchy and bureaucracy. Buurtzorg employ over 10,000 nurses and is one of Europes leading workplaces (according to Great Place to Work).

This example demonstrates that dismantling traditional hierarchies and empowering employees can lead to remarkable outcomes.

Progressive organisation and ways of working can be seen at an even grander scale in one of the world's leading home appliance organisations.

Haier - The Chinese home appliance company and parent company for brands Candy, Fischer & Paykel, GE appliances and many others has over 100k employees. They are organised into over 200 micro-enterprises that are self-managed and hyper-focused on responding to customer needs.

The results? Haier achieved a turnover of €51.75 billion and is the third-largest appliance company in the world by revenue standards. 

Committed to progress

The South Cambridgeshire Council story is a powerful case study. It proves that a four-day workweek, coupled with a willingness to experiment, can lead to a more effective and successful organisation. It’s also a stark reminder that not everyone appreciates progress on any terms. Each path to success is paved with significant road works. 

The point is we can complacently design inefficiency deeply set into any organisation.  Or we can intentionally experiment and trial new ways of working that result in better outcomes, improved efficiencies, better service, better customer experience, better employee experience and better employee engagement. And for those focused on the bottom line as we all should be, it will reduce cost and improve profit

South Cambridgeshire Council are to be admired. I hope they can stand up to the pressure to return to ‘how we used to do things around here’. Buurtzorg and Haier and others are examples of how new ways of working can not only maintain the status quo but far outperform competitors, even in traditionally bureaucratic markets and in large organisations. 

Let’s not succumb to the inertia of bureaucracy but instead dare to innovate, experiment, and challenge outdated norms. Whether you're a government official, a business leader, or an individual striving for progress, keep going, we can make work better together, for everyone.


Hybrid and flexible work demands a reimagining of traditional office interactions and an intentional design of our work culture that accommodates the lack of physical proximity. It starts with a willingness to experiment and learn, but, if you're unsure of what to do next, reach out or consider our Hybrid but Better Workbook to help design change in your team that works.

Flexible, remote, hybrid work guide

Learn more about Hybrid but Better workbook here

At A Better Work we work with our clients to make work better and more fulfilling. It's not about happiness, it's about feeling a sense of accomplishment, and building teams that work brilliantly together in good times and bad.

The best bit is all of this is good for your business - for your bottom line, for retention and for customer satisfaction. If you think we can help, reach out for a chat.

Let’s make work better together.

Michelle Wallace


A Better Work


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