By Richard Johnstone

13 Oct 2019

HMRC’s programme to move into 13 regional hubs has been at the heart of the department’s transformation of how it works. Richard Johnstone visits the first one to open and finds out what’s different

Amy Johnson lounge Photos Richard Johnstone

From HMRC’s new Croydon office, the tax agency’s previous Southern House building can be seen through the window. But although the old office is just a short walk away, when it comes to facilities the new base is on a different plane.

The 1,700 staff who have so far moved to the Ruskin Square building from across the town and further afield notice the offices are a world apart when they enter the reception in the appropriately named Amy Johnson Lounge.

Named in honour of the famed aviator who took off from nearby Croydon airport on a journey that made her the first female pilot to fly solo from England to Australia, the sweeping lobby is where staff get inducted into their new surroundings. And it’s here that CSW meets Mike Hamilton, HMRC’s change lead for Croydon, and Sam Shelley, from the regional implementation team, for a tour of the offices.

“This is a fantastic space and you get a really nice first impression when you come in and you sit here,” Shelley says. “It really gives the impression of doing things at a regional centre level, and getting people together immediately feels so much better than our traditional offices. People have actually asked whether they can hire this space at evening or weekends because it’s such a lovely venue, so we start building a sense of community here in the venue.”

Hamilton explains that the initial move to this building was a phased process, taking place over two months in 2017. “We moved 50 people a day and brought them in here and gave them a talk about the building and a tour.” Eventually, the staff headcount will top out at 2,700 by 2021.

Alongside the modern feel, the lobby demonstrates the community spirit that Hamilton, Shelley and colleagues have worked to create. The space is one of many in the building used for staff and community events, including line dancing, while it was HMRC civil servants themselves who christened the lobby.

“We did a staff consultation about the naming of this area,” says Hamilton. “Amy Johnson was one of the names that came forward. There were lots of names put forward, but we decided to go with something that would have a bit of longevity.”

As well as being someone whose reputation won’t be tarnished by any unforeseen and embarrassing tax-related revelations in the future, Johnson’s name has significance to Croydon, Shelley says.

Such attention to detail continues to other areas of the nine-floor building.

As well as modern work spaces set up for more collaboration, there is a dedicated training centre, an on-site canteen, and space for up to 80 bikes, complete with showers and airing spaces for those cycling in.

“Before we had an old cage in the carpark [for bicycles], and it was horrible,” Hamilton says. “It was only partly enclosed so it was full of litter, so not very nice. It was really sub-optimal, in polite terms. We had an office full of towels over radiators.”

Without lockers, people would bring their bag of cycling gear into the Southern House, Shelley (right) recalls.

“You were one of them,” she nods to Hamilton, “and the rest of us were like, ‘That’s revolting!’”

Croydon is the first of HMRC’s regional centres to open as part of the department’s Building Our Future estates plan, which will reduce the number of HMRC offices from 170 down to 13 regional hubs by 2022.

These facilities are a prime example of the difference civil servants can expect in the hubs, Hamilton (left) says.

“Anyone who has been in Southern House or Tollworth or Woolwich or Staines [among the 16 offices that have moved to the Croydon hub] wouldn’t have had anything like this.

“We always say we’re investing in our people, and this really feels like it. People get it – the deal is we’ll invest in you and we want to be a great place to work.”

“Lots of people have just moved 200 yards from Southern House, but actually it doesn’t matter whether it’s 200 yards or 200 miles, it’s so different,” Shelley adds.

There is also much-improved security – a pertinent concern after outgoing HMRC chief executive Sir Jon Thompson revealed the death threats he had faced after setting out some of the department’s Brexit analysis.

For example, there are customer rooms for consultation on the public side of the building’s security barrier, removing the need for people without clearance to be brought through the building.

Dedicated security at the building’s front desk and a separate post room also contribute, Shelley says.

“The feedback has been that people feel safer. There’s a much higher feeling of personal safety and security.

“Some customers still come and can get quite distressed, and our front of house is really good at managing that. The feedback is that people feel security is paramount.”

There were security arrangements in the previous office, Hamilton says, but “it didn’t have quite as professional a feel at times”.

“And a lot of our legacy offices were very similar,” he adds. “There was a patchiness, and now there there’s much more of a professional, customer service feel to it.”

The estates programme is one of a number of changes HMRC is making to how it works as an organisation, in what Thompson has called the biggest organisational transformation in Europe.

Another element has been giving staff Surface Pro tablets as part of an effort to improve efficiency and open up flexible working opportunities. Tying this into the estates programme has been crucial, according to Hamilton and Shelley.

As well as hooking up tablets to monitors when working at what Hamilton calls “core spaces”, the building is set up to suit new approaches – both in the office and remotely. This includes using sound-dampening wingback chairs for Skype calls and media screens, both at tables and larger conference rooms, that display information and presentations from the tablets.

“One of the biggest changes we’ve had here is the way we work flexibly,” Shelley says. “You can share documents live with people who are working remotely, and you could never do that before. Decision making is becoming quicker.”

“The Surface Pro rollout was happening before the locations programme,” Hamilton acknowledges, “but the location programme, the IT, and the software collaboration packages have all come together to create that different way of working.”

It has changed meetings too. “In the old days – which was only two years ago – you’d find you have a meeting of 20 people and 20 people would come along,” Shelley remembers. “What happens now is there are maybe four or five people who actually turn up and 15 people are Skyping in from different locations. That seems to be standard now.

“So then what we’re saying to people is: think about what you book for that because you’ll not need a meeting room for 20. You’ll maybe only need a huddle area, or a break out area.”

The Building Our Future programme has been criticised by some unions since its development in 2015, with concerns about how to ensure tax compliance from a reduced footprint, and the possibility of many officials opting to leave the department when faced with longer commutes to the new, consolidated offices. But HMRC insists 90% of existing staff will be able to move to one of the 13 hubs or complete their career in their current office.

Both Shelley and Hamilton say morale has held up.

“The first week we moved in, I remember bumping into a guy I would have regarded as a sceptic,” recalls Hamilton. “And he said: ‘I’ve worked for this organisation for 25 years, and I actually feel now I’m being invested in’. To him, it felt like some of the offices of the big four [accounting firms] that he went to visit – and they would always go out [for meetings] because our offices were not quite as good.”

Shelley remembers being “a bit anxious” when the move happened. “Both me and Mike had been quite visible in saying to people that it was going to be great. But people would say, ‘It is just a building, why are we going through all this pain?’

“So we brought people culturally along with us – saying: ‘Think how much better it would be to talk to people, get decisions made.’ And it worked. We’ve just had a review about how Croydon is doing over two years – we’ve had a reduction in working time lost due to travelling, we don’t have a spike in absence, we’ve got high engagement, good morale, and people working productively, flexibly and collectively.

“All of that has come up really well two years on, and that’s after we’ve had new people. That is the result of a combination of the environment and the leadership, because we do a lot to get people to understand regional centre etiquette and building that sense of community.”

With HMRC’s Bristol hub having now opened, and a number of others to follow soon starting with Belfast later this year, Shelley acknowledges that officials elsewhere may be feeling the same anxiety.

“What people really want to know is what’s in it for them? I kept saying that you work more flexibly, but people say what do you mean by that? I mean if you’ve got your Surface Pro, you can invite people, you can share documents remotely, and that makes you more productive. You can work without distractions [including in a dedicated quiet office on the building’s ninth floor for intensive tasks like writing submissions]. You can go to different places, and if you come in and you have three things to do, you will do those three things.

“And the biggest thing that people don’t have in traditional offices is that sense of community. You will start actually talking to your team and using the spaces to have big team meetings. You will work outside your team, and you will meet people in person you only used to talk to on the phone. You have opportunities to do stuff that you’ve never done before that are all transferable skills. That’s what’s in it for you.”

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