Don’t pin hopes on return to pre-pandemic ‘normal’, UK perm sec tells leaders

By on 25/10/2021 | Updated on 25/10/2021
Sarah Munby suggested virtual platforms have led to more honest exchanges of information, as well as more openness to expression of emotion in front of colleagues.

Civil service leaders should not expect workplaces to return to pre-pandemic norms and must instead embrace innovations made over the last 20 months, permanent secretary at the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Sarah Munby, has said.

In a blog published last week, Munby warned that leaders anticipating a reversion to work structures typical before the spread of COVID-19 are likely to be disappointed and will miss key opportunities to excel.  

“The lesson of the recent past has been that change, ambiguity and unpredictability are part of life, and certainly part of leadership,” she said.

“We have been dealing with an unexpected and dramatic spike in global gas prices, fuel queues at the pumps and a shortage of CO2, not to mention the slings and arrows that come your way when you’re about to set out the country’s plan to meet its long-term climate ambitions. The truth is that there never were ‘normal times’, and there probably never will be.”

Munby, who took up the role of BEIS permanent secretary in July 2020, said that the pandemic has produced several tangible work benefits, such as weaning teams off the use of “enormous conference rooms and their slightly malfunctioning microphones”. She suggested virtual platforms have led to more honest exchanges of information, as well as more openness to expression of emotion in front of colleagues. With greater levels of honesty, she added, civil service leaders will need to rethink traditional top-down styles of leadership.

“When things are stable you can, if you really want to, probably get away with an autocratic style of leadership: set the goal, hand out the plan, ensure tasks are fulfilled. But I think that’s now long gone as a smart way to lead in a modern civil service.”

No turning back

In August this year, senior resourcing and inclusion adviser at the human resources institute CIPD, Claire McCartney, told Global Government Forum that an important challenge for leaders going forward is to understand how flexible working options are shaping job search criteria for new employees. She said this is becoming increasingly key to determining whether departments can retain talent as time goes on.

“It’s important that organisations engage managers and provide them with training and development to support successful hybrid working… tech plays a crucial role in hybrid working, and it’s likely that many employers will need to invest in this space to allow employees to work seamlessly between the workplace and home,” she said.

A similar trend for flexible working is becoming clear in civil services around the world. Since the spring of 2021, the US federal government has been developing policies that aim to manage civil servants’ return to the office, in part by recognising the appeal remote and hybrid working practices have for them. The Biden administration has asked agencies to make “every effort” to maximise telework and has recently launched a ‘pulse’ survey – sent to about two million civilian federal employees at 24 major agencies – to gage their feelings about return-to-office processes.

In Australia, meanwhile, recruiters have recorded a rising number of government staff looking to leave government agencies that do not offer flexible working arrangements.

“It is an employee’s market right now, and any agency not offering those flexibilities as far as working remotely is concerned will find it hard to attract candidates,” one recruiter told The Mandarin.

In a survey carried out by Global Government Forum for Dell Technologies this year, around 72% of the UK civil servants who responded said that working remotely improves their wellbeing and around 60% said they’re more productive at home than in the office.

Leading by listening

In her blog, Munby said that civil service leaders should value diversity of perspectives and backgrounds in their teams, particularly when operating under stress or a pace such as during the pandemic.  

“One of the challenges of leading in interesting times is that you don’t always know what you are doing – nobody does,” she said. “Mistakes happen, especially when you are having to act fast, and you don’t have time to look at all the angles. We inevitably rely more on heuristics and judgement – and that’s a problem if our teams are all the same.”

About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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