‘There’s burnout we need to watch for’: civil servants reflect on the impact of coronavirus and home working

Top civil service officials have spoken to Civil Service World about what working from home and uncertainty during Covid-19 has meant for their people
Working from home PA

The scale of the organizational challenge that coronavirus is presenting to government has been revealed in a Civil Service World roundtable, with participants raising warnings about the impact of the current working arrangements on everything from policy delivery and people management to finances and the future of their offices.

In a roundtable sponsored by SAP Concur, civil servants from the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Home Office, and the Ministry of Defense gathered to discuss the challenges they are facing while delivering government services from home.

While departments had previously been working to a government target to return 80% of officials back in offices at least one day per week by the end of September, this was scrapped just two days before the event, when prime minister Boris Johnson announced renewed restrictions, including that people should work from home ‘if possible’, and which has affected department’s approaches.

Participants were quick to praise their colleagues’ sudden pivot to at-home working, a change that SAP Concur’s managing director Rob Harrison noted “70-80% of businesses were utterly unprepared for.”

Angus Gray, the director of employers health and inclusive employment at the Department for Work & Pensions, said his department had not “rushed to ratchet up [the return to work], so we had very much been in encouraging mode”.

He added: “Like others, some of the more senior people had started to go back as a signal.

“I’m quite pleased we didn’t go all guns blazing immediately following the prime minister’s letter to all departments about a return to the office, because then this week would have felt like a slightly uncomfortable leadership pivot.”

Maxine Walton MBE, the head of excellence and improvement, UK Visas and Immigration at the Home Office, said that the Home Office had a five phase return to work arrangement, but “personally, I haven’t been in the office since March”. The department had paused its leadership rota for senior staff to attend the office after Johnson’s announcement.

The officials in attendance said the long-term implications of the civil service continuing to work from home – which the prime minister has said is likely to be in place for six months – were yet to be fully realised.

For some, working from home had been “a great leveller”, Gray said. “Many of my people tell me that they feel much more included, being able to join ministerial meetings at the drop of a hat, rather than getting on a three-hour door-to-door journey [from his office in Sheffield to London].”

This has been “a real positive” for inclusion, he said.

However, others raised concerns that the usual management of performance that takes place would be difficult in the months of home working that lie ahead.

“What we haven't tested yet is: can people work from home, effectively over long periods of time, and delivering what needs to be delivered within service standards, using the technology that they've got and the equipment that they've got,” Walton said.

“What does performance look like. Do people improve working from home? Can they keep performance at the level that they are working in the office? Can managers monitor performance, is quality an issue? All of those things with remote working I think need to be understood and analysed.”

Departments and organisations needed to be clear to staff that “whilst you are expected to work from home, we also expect you to deliver”, she said.

“It's nice to stick your washing on or bob around with your vacuum cleaner, but actually, you get paid to do a job, and we expect you to do that. And if you don't do that, the same would apply if you didn't do it in the office.

“Performance management is not going away. What we have to do is work out how to measure that effectively for managers. We have to support the managers as well as staff to understand what it is that they must achieve and deliver during what is now an unusual working week.”

Amanda Lammonby, the head of learning, talent & inclusion at the Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S), part of the Ministry of Defence, highlighted that “we’re getting a lot of queries from people talking about how to manage remotely”, she said, and had taken steps including expanding talent programme more broadly across the organisation, as well as using existing civil service programmes in delegating, coaching, and managing remotely.

She said the department was “looking at what productivity measures could work without creating an entire industry around it”, adding “I don't think that we've dropped anything particularly major in terms of project deadlines and things like that”.

Rob Harrison, managing director for UK Enterprise, SAP Concur, highlighted that “every individual's context has suddenly become really important” in managing organisations.

“What was troubling people is quite different to what is troubling people six months in,” he said. “We have some very young people that have moved home with the parents, and now they're working on the end of their bed. We have some single parents, or we have some working parents where both parents are now working from home with young families. Understanding the context – and being sensitive to that – has become really, really important.”

He highlighted that SAP Concur has undertaken research that found coronavirus had been driving organizational change across a host of different firms.

“We've done some surveys over the past few months to try and understand what other organisations are thinking and 70-80% of businesses were completely unprepared for this. and it's been massively disruptive,” he said.

“And these organizations have a chief information officer or a chief financial officer. And when you ask a lot of companies who's driving that transformation, it is not the CIO, or the CFO, it's been Covid. Covid has driven such a massive digital transformation amongst a lot of organizations.”

In one example, Lammonby highlighted that her department was looking at how it could change its working offer to staff to remain leading.

“Flexibility was one of our key selling points as a as an employer, and with so many other local employers now offering that we need to keep one step ahead,” she highlighted. “We weren't expecting people to need or return to work Monday to Friday, so I think we are now looking at how do we have to adjust our employee offer to ensure that people have that choice. And come in when it's deemed best practice and to engage in collaborative working and to do things face to face. But for the rest of the time, we would encourage people to work from home post-Covid.”

Walton highlighted that such an approach could also free up funding. “Savings are potentially available in reduction in footprint across the UK but we can’t test that yet, that’s dependent on decisions about the way we work in the future.”

The session also heard concerns about the negative financial impact of the pandemic. Amanda MacIntosh, Finance Project Accountant, Animal and Plant Health Agency, an executive agency of the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs, highlighted that Defra was likely to cover the costs of the agency – which are normally met by inspection fees, this year. But there was not much certainly beyond this.

“We’re not getting as much money as we were getting in, we’re not doing as many services, the vets can’t go out,” she said. “We have to do this work, but if we’re not bringing in income then we are going to be asking taxpayers for more money”.

Such uncertainty was exacerbated by the looming end of the Brexit transition period.

“I have no idea what will survive and what won’t survive through the EU exit.” MacIntosh said. “Covid-19 has made a big impact on fees and charges and such income.”

Walton raised similar issues at UKVI. “Income is down because we can’t get the customers through at the front end,” and after EU exit, new policies are coming in: “We don’t know what we don’t know.”

And at a time when Brexit is likely to place even more pressure on organisations, there was some warnings about the viability of such high pressure workloads across government that Walton said was already like a wartime ethic.

Gray highlighted that “the problems of the country feel as though they’re mine to solve and that’s a heavy weight”, adding: “I worry that we’ve learned some really bad habits, because the country really needed us to do that, but it’s completely unsustainable, we don’t need to do it anymore.

“And yet there are still days where there’s a massive crisis spike and we have to respond. There’s burnout we need to watch for.”

Harrison closed the session by thanking all those who had contributed for their “sterling work” in response to Covid. “You've opened my eyes up a lot. We all need to be a lot more thankful. So thank you so much.”

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