Distant employees and close teams: managing the shift to remote working

By on 15/04/2020

As governments respond to COVID-19, around the world millions of civil servants have abruptly found themselves working from home. Matt Ross learns how national leaders, employers and managers can help to maintain productivity, morale and collaboration in a dispersed workforce, and takes a glimpse into the post-corona world

After years of gently tugging distracted civil service bodies down the path to ‘smarter working’, Kate Guthrie now finds herself clinging to the reins as departments stampede towards her long-held goals.

As the head of workplace experience and smarter working director for the UK’s Government Property Agency (GPA), until this spring Guthrie was supporting departments towards a December 2022 deadline to achieve “full maturity” in remote working capabilities. Then came coronavirus, and Guthrie’s appointment as head of a new cross-government Working from Home Taskforce. Suddenly, smarter working was at the top of every department’s to-do list: in the face of COVID-19, says Kathryn Turner – head of Capgemini’s Customer Services Group in its work for tax agency HMRC – “change is imperative, rather than a choice.”

Around the world, civil service bodies are scrambling to move as much of their work into the digital space as possible, providing staff with the equipment and support required to work from home. And they’re doing so in the midst of a global health crisis which is robbing staff of their family and social lives, adding new caring and educational roles to their responsibilities, and threatening their lives and those of their loved ones.

Against this dramatic, traumatic backdrop, the need to move quickly outweighs most other considerations: there’s no time for the usual pitch-rolling and consultation work. “People are having to embrace remote working through the stick method, rather than the carrot method,” comments Lawrence Evans, client development director for digital governance platform Board Intelligence. “That is always more difficult.” So how can departments successfully disperse their workforces, maintaining productivity and collaboration as transplanted employees adapt to their new working environments?

Communication and central direction

Rule one, says Professor Almuth McDowall, head of the Department of Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, is to constantly communicate with the workforce. “We’ve never had such a quantum leap in how the world of work is changing. There are no rules, no code of best practice,” she says. “So it’s about communications, communications, communications – and they have to be two-way, as there are people out there in a very vulnerable position.”

Paul James’s organisation is averaging 700 Zoom calls a day

Just as important is the centre’s ability to lead departments’ efforts. Matthias Freundlieb, deputy director-general of Germany’s Federal Chancellery, points out that “organisational structures to identify needs and suitable remedial structures, headed by the centre of government” are crucial to effective crisis management. Take national telecoms systems, says Paul James, chief executive of New Zealand’s Department of Internal Affairs and the Government Chief Digital Officer: “The key to effective remote working is well-performing telecommunications infrastructure,” he says – so governments must work with providers “to ensure they understand and anticipate the demands that will be made on their systems.” Growing demand for online and telephone services, he adds, creates a need “to rapidly scale up or build new cloud-based call centres” – again demanding engagement with telecoms business at the national level.

Providing the tools

In the UK, explains Guthrie, the centre’s The Way We Work agenda – led in recent years by the GPA – has resulted in almost every department introducing shared drives, calendars and collaboration tools, and giving policy and administration staff the tools to work from home. And where civil service office workers still lack the right systems or equipment, they can often be rolled out quickly and easily. Rob Whiteman, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) – and a former head of the UK Border Agency – recalls that CIPFA introduced Microsoft Teams during 2019 “in a couple of weeks, with cameras and microphones installed on every PC. It’s straightforward, tried and trusted technology that people are buying off the shelf.”

Indeed, over the last couple of years, rapid developments in communications technology have much eased the path to remote working. “The ability to use Cloud-based audio and video conferencing tools has been a game changer”, says James. “Within our organisation, we’re averaging 700 calls a day using Zoom.” Some governments have even built bespoke collaboration platforms: Katherine Jones, deputy secretary of Australia’s Department of Finance, explains that the Australian Public Service’s GovTEAMS system “enables public servants and their external partners to connect, share and work together across organisations and geographic boundaries.” Providing remote conferencing and events, messaging, document management and rapid web publication, she says, GovTEAMS “is being used across the service to urgently respond to the crisis as well as to support increasing flexible and remote work.”

Nonetheless, some departments will always struggle to roll out remote working across their workforces. “It’s a bigger challenge for those with more frontline staff,” notes Guthrie, explaining that the Working from Home Taskforce – which brings together “experts from various functions across government: Civil Service HR, Government Digital Service, Government Security Group etcetera” – has been leading work to permit social distancing for staff whose roles can’t be carried out at home. “We’ve got a space-finding service, so if your own office space isn’t available you can go into civil service office estate that’s closer to you – we’re trying to reduce travel,” she says. “That’s something that government hasn’t really done before.”

Retaining visibility for managers

Even where staff have the tools to work from home, organisational leaders must rapidly reshape HR policies, leadership styles and team communications. For example, says Turner, “leaders and managers need to operate differently; they need the right skills and attitudes. We need to consider how organisations are monitoring and managing performance, and keeping productivity up. And it’s really important to make teams feel supported.” While staff can be sent home as soon as they have the tools to do their core jobs, organisations will need systems to provide management oversight, gather data and support effective communication.

CIPFA, for example, uses a Clearview platform “that holds your organisational goals and the timescales, and that captures all the one-to-one performance management meetings between staff and their managers,” explains Whiteman. “That gives us a virtual performance management system, with good control of workload and a good overview of productivity.” And Evans highlights the need for secure, efficient systems both to support remote board meetings, and to “give managers the ability to collate and present the management information requested by boards.”

Offering support for staff

Such systems of oversight, though, mustn’t undermine managers’ efforts to build open, supportive relationships with their remote teams. “Trust should be the default; just because people are at home, you shouldn’t think they’re being less productive,” says Guthrie, urging leaders to “have regular check-ins with staff, so employees know their managers are available.”

Managers often won’t have the time to provide one-to-one assistance to every team member, notes Dr Nancy Doyle, an occupational psychologist and chief executive of neurodiversity consultancy Genius Within. “We can manage that by relying less on the pyramid hierarchy, and instead creating circles of support,” she says – with staff being asked to keep in close touch with a handful of colleagues. And Turner also emphasises the importance of informal communications: “A lot of companies are creating ‘virtual watercoolers’, making sure that those ad hoc meetings which are really important for communications, engagement and efficiency don’t get lost in the more formal tools and processes,” she says. “The more engaged and supported your workforce feels, the more productive they’ll be.”

In planning and distributing workloads, says McDowall, managers should recognise the particular circumstances of individual employees – many of whom will have childcare responsibilities, difficult working environments, or concerns over sick or vulnerable family members. “We need to work flexibly, telling people to do what they can when they can – and then, when the situation improves, reconsidering,” she says. “You can only do that if you keep your finger on the pulse.”

Managers often won’t have the time to provide one-to-one assistance to every team member. “We can manage that by relying less on the pyramid hierarchy, and instead creating circles of support,” says Nancy Doyle

And it’s as important to understand employees’ aptitudes as their circumstances, comments Doyle. People “have different cognitive strengths. Some will find video conferencing really overwhelming; others may find phone calls with more than three people draining,” she says. “It’s not possible for line managers to take responsibility for working out every employee’s cognitive styles, but they can open the conversation and get people thinking for themselves. Staff can find ways of adapting processes, but they need to feel they have permission to do so.”

Cross-government guidance

To help departments support their staff, says Guthrie, the centre has been providing “guidance and advice on health and safety, caring for others, security: issues like how to stay secure if you’re sharing a house with flatmates.” Cross-government websites have been set up with “all the information you need if, for example, you’re an HR director. There are daily calls, and signposts to the latest HR advice.”

Team leaders require guidance on a huge range of issues, says Whiteman, such as ergonomics: “You need to think about the home as a work environment. Have people got the right tables, chairs, wrist support? Staff need advice on taking breaks, posture, setting up their kit properly.” The challenge for government in providing central guidance, he adds, “will be to allow local discretion and workarounds for what people need to do at a local level. Because of security and confidentiality, the civil service will want to have very watertight rules – but that can be ungainly or difficult to apply locally. How do you provide security, while giving people some discretion over how they do their jobs?”

Relieving the pressure

Over the medium term, other transformation agendas – equally accelerated by corona – should enable more staff to work remotely. These include ‘channel shift’: the goal of moving service users from face to face and telephone services to digital platforms. “All organisations are looking at channel shift, and the current climate means that’s moving much faster,” comments Turner.

For example, explains Katherine Jones, Australia has sped up its ‘telehealth’ programme – broadening access to remote consultations and advice. The A$669m (US$428m) scheme, she says, “reflects years of work, urgently accelerated in a matter of weeks, to provide the opportunity for Australians to access health services at home, limiting unnecessary exposure of patients and health professionals, taking pressure off hospitals and emergency department, and allowing people to support self-isolation and quarantine policies.”

Katherine Jones explains that Australia’s GovTEAMS system “is being used across the service to urgently respond to the crisis as well as to support increasing flexible and remote work”.

The shock of corona may also hasten organisations’ shifts towards Cloud services. “Migrating to the Cloud offers significant benefits in terms of flexibility, agility and resilience for running services at scale, so better supports remote and flexible working,” comments Turner. As organisations consider how to harden themselves against future shocks, Cloud’s strength in supporting distributed working may help speed take-up.

In terms of skills and capabilities, after a few weeks dealing with COVID-19 many civil services are already much better prepared for the next big challenge to business continuity. “Lots of people already had mobile devices, but they didn’t know how best to use them. Now they’re learning very quickly to use digital tools and data,” comments Guthrie, adding that departments’ business continuity plans are being rigorously tested and improved during the crisis. Officials’ newly-acquired “familiarity with technology and new ways of working will be very important in future years,” she says. “However bad the situation, there’s huge learning from it that we should take into whatever the ‘new normal’ ends up being.”

Here comes the new normal

It’s already clear that in this ‘new normal’, far more business will be done remotely. With staff having acquired remote working technologies and working habits, and line managers reassured that distributed teams can work effectively, staff are likely to win greater freedom to operate remotely and autonomously. “I’m convinced that this will create a step change in digital working,” comments Whiteman. “We’ll probably stop travelling round the country to visit people, and do more virtual meetings. People will work from home more; events will be held digitally; it will be the end of ‘presenteeism’ culture. We’ll see real productivity gains: I think there will be a transformative shift.”

Rob Whiteman is convinced that the coronavirus crisis “will create a step change in digital working”.

Guthrie agrees: “I’m hoping people will see that you can be really productive even if you’re not in the office,” she says. She hopes that “in future, people will think about where they can be most productive, feeling they know how best to work remotely – and that they have permission to do so.”

And civil services’ responses to COVID-19 are creating another major shift: faced with the need to radically and rapidly transform civil service operations, staff are focusing on the task at hand – cutting across the organisational boundaries or traditional hierarchies that so often hamper collaboration in less hard-pressed times. “It’s really quickly taking down some of the barriers between departments; there’s some really good cross-government working within the professions,” says Guthrie. “And the pace is so fast that people are going straight to the decision-makers, rather than through the hierarchy.”

The COVID-19 crisis is, for many countries, a social, economic and health disaster. But the need to respond speedily and effectively is giving civil servants license to discard outdated working methods as they embrace more networked, informal, distributed ways of operating – and these positive changes will endure long past the current crisis, boosting governments’ ability to respond effectively to the next. “It’s really speeding up the way the civil service operates,” concludes Guthrie. “In 20 years in the civil service, I’ve never seen something like this.”

Watch out for our forthcoming feature and webinar on how to support civil servants as they adapt to home-working, featuring Professor Almuth McDowall, Nancy Doyle, and Dr Nasser Siabi, chief executive of assistive technologies provider Microlink.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public sector management, policymaking and service delivery. He was the editor of Civil Service World 2008-14, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of Regeneration & Renewal 2002-08, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with communications consultancy, marketing and journalism work for publishers, public sector unions and private sector suppliers to government.

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