Estates and smart working: rolling out reform in the Welsh Government

Written by Caren Fullerton on 17 October 2019 in Feature

The Welsh Government's award-winning smart working project in its Merthyr Tydfil office has set a template that is being rolled out across all its civil service buildings. Welsh Government chief digital officer Caren Fullerton explains how it was done

Smart winners: The Merthyr Tydfil team receiving an award for their work

What does smart working mean for the Welsh Government?

Smart working is a business focused approach that gives everyone an opportunity to choose when, where and how they work. It’s about increasing productivity without increasing time spent in the office. That might mean taking your laptop into a meeting instead of printing out copies of papers, or it could be simply working from a different location. The smart approach is an evolution of a flexible working policy we piloted in our Merthyr Tydfil Office in 2017.

What changes did you make in Merthyr Tydfil?

One key change was that we removed core hours and flexi bandwidths. In order to make sure the changes didn’t have a detrimental impact on delivery, teams were asked to hold discussions about how they would apply flexible working to their own circumstances and create a team charter. This gave all members an opportunity to raise any issues they’d not mentioned before. Some teams developed a rota so the same person wasn’t always stuck covering the phones on Friday afternoons. For teams that don’t need cover in the office, team charter discussions started to chip away at any residual culture of presenteeism. After a while, people see that the work is still getting done even if the person doing it isn’t sat in the office.

Did staff have any input into the changes?

Yes, we weren’t too prescriptive when we rolled out flexible working. We worked very closely with the senior leadership team in Merthyr, and all of the guidance and supporting materials we produced clearly stated the organisation’s expectations, such as giving every individual the opportunity to be flexible in some way, but giving each team the responsibility to determine how it would work for their business delivery. We knew that a “one size fits all” approach wouldn’t work, and by talking to staff about the changes we were able to reflect the diverse needs of different business areas.

How have staff responded to the changes?

The changes have been really well received. Staff told us they felt more trusted and, as a result, more positive towards the organisation. We carried out a baseline survey and ran an extensive evaluation which showed that individuals and line managers all felt that the pilot had a positive effect. We know from anecdotal feedback that some of the managers who were initially wary changed their minds during the pilot and are now some of our greatest advocates.

Even more importantly, the positivity has continued. In the last People Survey, Merthyr was our most engaged office, with scores in some areas 10-11% higher than our average. Staff have said they’re happy to test out other new initiatives too, so it’s great to have a whole office of people who are enthusiastic about trying new things.

What are staff able to do now that they couldn’t do before?

As someone commented in the feedback, there’s now a level playing field and flexible working is seen as the norm. People no longer feel they need to justify why they might be starting later or finishing earlier.

Many people have caring responsibilities and the opportunity to work to a different pattern of hours or from a different location temporarily has meant they’ve been able to carry on working, preventing the organisation losing skills and knowledge. Others said it really helped to be able to attend medical appointments and know they can make up time without worrying about appointments running over.

Have you seen any improvements in productivity?

Yes. One of the most surprising discoveries was that it’s the small things that make a big difference. There were examples of people being able to reduce travel time by working for an hour or so from home before going on a visit to a local external stakeholder.

Many said that they were actually much more focused because they could better balance their work and personal lives – like knowing they could leave before 3pm to do the school run. It sounds almost counterintuitive but by giving people more freedom, they became more focused on their work. Feeling trusted and empowered has a big impact on people’s willingness to “go the extra mile”.

Do you plan to implement smarter working programmes in other offices?

In May we launched smart working across the whole organisation. It’s a step further than the pilot – we’re now looking much more at how working in this way will help us to be more efficient with our time. 

We’re about to finish deploying laptops to everyone, which will increase their ability to work more flexibly. The next stage is to look at how we can develop smart working further by rethinking some of our processes, reducing bureaucracy and making sure we’re an exemplar as an organisation.

What lessons have you learned in running the pilot?

One of the most important lessons from the pilot was in what we didn’t change. We were not ready to implement new ICT kit for the pilot so we only had around 40 additional pooled laptops to share amongst approximately 600 staff. The success of the pilot demonstrated that whilst technology is a great enabler of flexible working, it’s much more important to focus on people.

One of the other key lessons was the importance of communication and consistency. The pilot was a way of formalising the approach and making sure everyone had the same opportunities. We’re all so busy that sometimes we forget to step back and think about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and whether there’s a better way of doing it. The team charter conversations gave everyone a chance to do just that.

In retrospect, would you have done anything differently?

I don’t think we would have. Running a pilot before a wider rollout was definitely a good idea and we got a huge amount of insight, which we used in developing the plans to introduce smart working to the rest of the organisation. The full benefits, like reducing travel and subsistence costs, and more video conferencing, couldn’t be realised without the ICT functionality and with the pilot focused on one office. It was challenging being ahead of the upgrade, but carrying out the changes in this order ensured that the focus was on behavioural change.

“Technology is a great enabler of flexible working, but it’s much more important to focus on people”

What advice would you give public sector organisations and departments seeking to implement similar changes?

It’s definitely worth putting the time into the planning stage. We engaged with staff at all levels so they were well prepared when we finally launched. A pilot is a great way to find out what works and what doesn’t with manageable numbers before involving the whole organisation. So, my advice would be to give it a go!

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Caren Fullerton
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Caren Fullerton is chief digital officer of the Welsh Government

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