'The big thing is unleashing people’s adaptivity': how departments should plan the future of work

As departments and agencies look beyond the pandemic to plan their future approaches to hybrid working, industry professionals, academics and unions share what they should be considering
Photo: JoshuaWoroniecki/Pixabay

By Jim Dunton

02 Dec 2021

A lot can happen in two years. There now seems little doubt that the civil service’s coronavirus-driven shift away from predominantly office-based working has become much more than a temporary measure in response to a crisis. 

Sarah Munby, permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, wrote in a recent blog that her initial hopes for a post-Covid return to normality had morphed into a recognition that “there never were ‘normal times’ and there probably never will be”. Officials may disagree about the first point, but it is hard to pretend the present is anything other than a time of flux.  
Numbers of civil servants returning to the office are steadily rising. CSW understands that around 50%-60% of staff are currently attending workplaces for a day or more a week, although the average masks significant differences between individual departments. But there is growing acceptance – underscored in departmental job advertisements and the occasional words of ministers – that hybrid working is here to stay. 

Research on the homeworking experiences of more than 25,000 civil servants, conducted by consultant Leesman for the Government Property Agency in July last year, found 79.9% of respondents report they were able to work productively at home. Just 27% of the survey group indicated a preference for returning to their offices for the majority of the week. 

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the pandemic has also brought a sea-change in employers’ attitudes to hybrid working. It said research showed 63% were now in favour of staff being offered hybrid working as an option. It has also found productivity remaining stable or increasing as homeworking has grown. 

Civil service remote working ensured service continuity at a time of national emergency and will have made a significant contribution to limiting the spread of coronavirus. But CSW has yet to identify specific non-pandemic related productivity gains that accompanied the switch. 

Dr Sharon Varney, director of the Henley Forum at Henley Business School, says that’s not the point. “The big thing is unleashing people’s adaptivity and creativity,” she says. “People found ways of working that would never have come from a top-down policy. 

“Managers and senior leaders should be attempting to catch people being creative and learn from what’s working. And they’ve got to be interested enough for people to tell them the real stuff.” 

Varney says the behaviours staff have been exhibiting during the pandemic are vital to new business models. “What people have been doing is adapting, and it’s what we’re trying to get people to do,” she says. 

Claire McCartney, policy adviser for resourcing and inclusion at the CIPD, says organisations should be taking a medium-term view on their hybrid-working arrangements, seeing the next steps as interim arrangements that need to be part of an ongoing conversation with employees. 

“As organisations collect feedback, I’d hope they would look to trial different approaches – perhaps over the next year or more,” she says. “It needs to be a continual process of piloting, reviewing and evolving the way you do business.” 

Steve Davies, president of the local-government focused Public Services People Managers Association (PPMA) says team-level approaches based on service needs should be the starting point for planning future arrangements. “Some services might feel they need to be based in the workplace four to five days a week,” he says. “But the point is to try to embrace different work styles and different approaches for different groups.” 

Davies says a template created at Essex County Council that helps teams plan future arrangements has gained interest in the local government sector. The “team charter” contains a list of issues to be agreed, including what activities a team must perform in the same location, what must be done at the same time but not necessarily in the same location, how working patterns are managed, and how work and learning is shared. Essex expects 75% of its roughly 7,700 staff to have permanently adopted hybrid working by autumn 2022. 

Davies believes fitting teams’ service-based approaches into wider organisational requirements will be an effective way to embed hybrid-working advances for the longer term. 

Bruce Mann was executive director at the Government Property Unit from 2012 to 2016. He is strongly in favour of officials thinking “very widely indeed” about how to deliver their team and individual outputs.  

“If you’ve got the technology, you can work from anywhere. So where does it make sense for people to work, and – when they’re meeting face to face – where does it make most sense for people to meet up?” he says. “Start with the outputs and people. Do they need to meet face to face to be collaborative? If it makes sense just to grab six desks every Friday in another department’s office, then do that.” 
Mann points out that departments were already on a “smart working” journey before Covid-19 and are now “just going further and faster”. 

An increased focus on outputs is a recurring theme among experts, but one that poses challenges for managers. “When people work remotely, it’s all about having a really clear objective and measuring them by their output rather than by hours worked,” CIPD’s McCartney says.  

Henley Forum’s Varney agrees, but cautions that a significant pitfall of the wider roll-out of hybrid working could be fear-driven micromanagement. 

The specialists CSW spoke to had no firm opinions on the right work/home balance. “There’s no point in having an arbitrary ‘come in for three days a week’ policy,” McCartney says. “There has to be a strong reason for those kinds of requirements, and some of that will come from practical and time commitments.” 

However, former GPU head Mann says employers who switch to 100% remote working are probably missing out on something from their staff. “If you get people together in the same physical space, you do generate more creativity,” he says. “You can get creativity over a Teams or Zoom call. But they are weighted towards something that is more transactional.” Spontaneous sharing of ideas, on-the-job training, and general advice and guidance are all more naturally suited to a physical workplace, he adds. 

PPMA’s Davies flags a need for new starters to spend more time at formal workplaces and for colleagues to properly support them for an effective induction period. He says there is emerging evidence of churn among new recruits that could be connected to a failure to engage effectively with organisations because of remote working. 

Mann is sceptical about the notion that presence in a physical workplace is important for promotion, however. “My hunch is that employers value output as much as presence. Perhaps more,” he says. 

Significantly fewer staff attending workplaces on a daily basis raises questions about the kind of space departments and agencies will require in the future, although some parts of government are already unable to accommodate all their staff in their existing premises at the same time.   

Davies sees a need for more “hot-desking and coffee-type collaborative workspace”, because when staff are present in the same place they will be more likely to meet others and share ideas. 

CIPD’s McCartney stresses that employers will need to find ways of making sure they have enough space to accommodate staff who don’t want to work from home as well as those whose roles are deemed unsuitable for hybrid working – which she says is also a looming fairness challenge. 

The Leesman research on homeworking found that the 35% of civil servants without a specific area for working at their home reported the worst remote-working experience during the first national coronavirus lockdown. Conversely, the 39% who said they had a dedicated work room or office at home reported the best experience. 

It also highlighted that staff from the London region, those with lower pay grades, younger officials, and those from the Black or Black British ethnic groups were more likely to be working from a “non-work specific” setting at home and so were more likely to have the least favourable experience. 

Civil service unions say departments appear to be taking an appropriately pragmatic view on hybrid working in the wake of September 2020’s controversial back-to-the-office drive, scrapped amid rising Covid infection rates. But they also noted some departments had begun questioning the need to pay staff London weighting in a new era of hybrid working.  

FDA assistant general secretary Lucille Thirlby says civil service HR has produced reams of materials for departments to use for developing new ways of working and to guide conversations about the future world of work.  

“There’re good practice policies and frameworks for the conversations to take place at corporate level to team and individual level,” she says. But she adds it’s “too early to evidence” what the outcomes of those discussions have been and what the future for hybrid working is likely to be. 

Thirlby says there is “not much evidence” that departments are rethinking their estates strategies as a result of the pandemic and questions the extent to which the Places for Growth programme, to relocate officials away from London, will help in practical terms.   

Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of the Prospect union, says a member survey earlier this year indicated only a “very small minority” wanted to work exclusively from home.  

“The vast majority wanted hybrid working, with the flexibility to work from home and also work from an office,” he says. “And that’s what’s happening in practice at the moment. 

“One of the things that we’re encouraging employers not to do is make definitive decisions and set things in stone.” 

Graham says the approach adopted by agencies and departments should be one that prioritises operational requirements but also maximises individual choice.  

Leesman’s founder and chief executive Tim Oldman observes in the consultancy’s homeworking study that officials have been given “a new benchmark for workplace experience – their own homes”.

He says employers need to acknowledge the development and also that working from home supports some activities better than offices.   

Henley Forum’s Varney thinks the term “hybrid working” will become redundant pretty soon, although the arrangements it describes will not. 

“Everyone’s talking about it right now because it’s relatively new. But really we’re talking about work,” she says. “You wouldn’t hear people talking about using computers, would you? It’s just part of how we work.” 

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