Expanding the talent pool: how hybrid work can make public sector jobs a better fit for everyone

By on 06/07/2022 | Updated on 06/07/2022
An office worker in wheelchair turns into the main office space
How should public sector organisations ensure that the hybrid model of work builds in protections for the most marginalised and vulnerable?

The new hybrid work model has forced employers to think multi-dimensionally about fairness, diversity, and inclusion. And public sector organisations now have a big opportunity to show the way

The widespread shift to remote work in 2020 came with a host of theories about the future of management, teambuilding, recognition and reward.

Among them was the claim that presenteeism was dead. No longer could employers base their evaluations of staff on what they saw in the office. All that mattered were results. But with civil servants in many countries now working part of the time from offices and the rest at home, this new hybrid model has forced employers to think multi-dimensionally about fairness, diversity, and inclusion. A person working remotely may wish to be judged on the merits of their output above all else, but that does not necessarily mean they want their personal needs ignored. Similarly, those returning to the office after the pandemic can be expected to have thought deeply about what they want from their interactions with colleagues and managers.

Last month, Global Government Forum invited four experts in the field of diversity and inclusion to share their thoughts during a webinar on how public sector bodies can ensure the hybrid model evolves to be socially equitable as well as functionally practical

The art of asking

The Work Foundation is a hotbed of research on the future of employment and work fulfilment. According to its policy analyst Heather Taylor, the Foundation’s abundant work on the subject gives employers ample reason to sit up and listen to what people think and feel about the ‘new normal’.

One Work Foundation survey showed that women are less likely than men to agree that their organisation is inclusive of remote workers in its day-to-day operations. It also found that women felt less comfortable than men about asking their line manager to let them work remotely. Around 20% of the managers surveyed admitted that the move to remote and hybrid working could create barriers for women in the workplace.

Heather Taylor

Around a fifth of employees aren’t happy that their manager is responsible for deciding whether or not they can work remotely. Unsurprisingly, managers who use their power to overrule employees’ preferences create discontent among staff, while those who generally support people’s preferences find staff are more comfortable asking for flexibility. Perhaps even less surprisingly, work flexibility is appreciated most by employees whose lives ordinarily involve constraints due, for example, to illness or a disability.

Around 61% of disabled workers said that they felt comfortable asking to work remotely. The fact that 39% of disabled workers did not, however, raises serious concerns. As Taylor said: “Traditional views of the workplace do still stand.”

“The managers that we surveyed say that hybrid could limit workplace opportunities for specific worker groups, including young people, disabled workers and people with caring responsibilities,” she said.

Read more: All inclusive: making hybrid offices work for everyone

Solving these issues starts with consulting staff about their preferences: where, when, and how they work at their best. Importantly, Taylor said, these consultations should be part of a continuous process that includes regular information and feedback sessions, not one-off exercises, and should ideally involve “open dialogue with employees around key issues such as disconnecting from work and how the workplace is best used”.

This is backed up by the Work Foundation’s research, which found that employees of organisations that carry out regular consultations are more likely to feed back positively about their remote working arrangements. For this to be the case, employers need to be trained to consult effectively.

On the topic of hybrid working more generally, Taylor said governments can be instrumental in bringing about change. The Foundation recommends that governments make flexible work a default for their employees, and force big employers to publish data on work flexibility and prioritise inclusive employers in procurement.

Next to speak at the webinar was Paula Arroyave, representative of the UN secretary general’s special envoy on disability and accessibility, María Soledad Cisternas Reyes.

Paula Arroyave

Arroyave explained that the UN has developed three strategies in its framework for diversity and inclusion in the age of hybrid work. The first of these is to mainstream the “operational implementation of flexible working arrangements to address challenges associated with remote and online work”. Second is for talent management within the UN to preserve “the international character of the organisation” and prioritise diversity and inclusion. The third strategy focuses on keeping staff engaged through a time of workplace transition.

Inclusion, Arroyave said, means not just promoting equal opportunities but also granting employees “the freedom to be [themselves] in all environments… to bring [their] whole being to work”. This is especially important for disabled workers, whose participation in society generally tends to be more restricted.

Quoting the UN secretary general, Arroyave said that organisations now need to move “from the headquarters to the field”. The hybrid model has been well and truly proven to benefit businesses and organisations. It is now down to conscientious employers to embrace it.

Safe as houses

In Canada, the second largest country in the world by land mass, labour tends to be widely dispersed. Yet those employed in public services have traditionally been concentrated in the national capital, Ottawa. Hybrid work has altered this by increasing agencies’ scope to hire from a much broader area.

“From a diversity perspective, that’s really important because it means we have access to pools [of talent] from various communities across the country,” said Marie-Josée Kabis, assistant senior director for the Centre on Diversity and Inclusion at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat.

Multicultural citizenship is a hallmark of Canadian identity, one that is enriched by the fact that the country has two official languages (English and French). This makes its pool of talent inherently wider and reaffirms a culture of cooperation, Kabis said. “We have very different realities from east to west and north to south [which] can actually increase our ability to make better policies and offer better services when we understand each other better.”

Indigenous peoples are now easier than ever to recruit, she added, because they can work easily from within their communities while also serving their country.

Marie-Josée Kabis

The success of the hybrid work model in Canada has a dark side too, however. The COVID-19 virus was first recorded in the city of Wuhan, China, which triggered a wave of racist hostility towards Chinese and East Asian minorities in countries worldwide. This was no less apparent in Canada, a country where 5% of the population is ethnically Chinese.

“We’ve had colleagues of Asian descent who were very worried about coming back to the office and having to commute, and so having to face the Asian hate that we’ve heard and seen so loudly. That was a deep concern,” Kabis said.
One of the tools Kabis’ team uses to measure how well the government is performing on diversity and inclusion is its public service employment survey. This measures, among other things, employees’ experiences of harassment and discrimination. In one survey taken when most employees were still working from home, the number of cases of discrimination against what Kabis termed “equity seeking groups” went down. These employees naturally reported feeling safer when working remotely, though Kabis admitted the reasons for this were “obviously not great”.

For colleagues with disabilities, the shift to hybrid working has introduced clear benefits, given that there is now “a heck of a lot less stigma around accommodations”.

Bertrand Saint Aubin is head of working conditions and wellbeing at the European Commission. After spending almost 10 years in the French Ministry of Finance, he joined the commission in economic and financial affairs during the setting up of the euro area, before joining the Directorate General for Competition. He explained that the Commission had introduced a teleworking scheme on a request basis 10 years before the pandemic.

“We had some IT development that helped people basically work from home… so that was part of our wellbeing policy and [it] helped people in balancing private and work life,” he explained.

Bertrand Saint Aubin

Yet in 2019, the Commission still adhered to a largely traditional work model, with 95% of staff working in the office. Of the 5% who did request teleworking arrangements, 90% were women, and far from being normalised, these requests were often stigmatised, Saint Aubin said.

Though he asserted that this has since changed, and that the old teleworking scheme has been upgraded. Now, it advises a 60% homeworking to 40% office working split.

“For us, it’s also very important that there are some informal contacts and exchanges with people [and] we are very strongly committed to geographical diversity of our staff,” he added.

To avoid the gender imbalances seen previously, the new scheme asks that regular reports be written to assess whether men and women enjoy broadly similar benefits from flexible work.

Upskilling managers

The new normal brings with it new rules, as well as the need to learn new skills with which to enforce them. This is the challenge facing managers, many of whom are still coming to terms with diversity and inclusion in the context of a permanently distributed workforce.

The Work Foundation’s Taylor said it is important for managers to provide staff with the “psychological safety” to ask for what they need without fear of reprimand. She added that managers too need this safety from their organisations because they will not always make the right calls and should be free to make mistakes and refine the process. Arroyave agreed. She said that any workable approach must place the individual at the centre, meaning that new protocols, though essential, should not supplant the simple act of asking someone what works best for them. For Saint Aubin, trust, training and transparency are key.

Read more: How can public and civil services support people with disabilities into senior roles?

One area of inclusion that came up towards the end of the discussion concerned income inequality across organisations. Working remotely forces a person to use more energy at home, and the cost of this is hitting people especially hard now. For the lowest paid employees, this can make flexible work financially punitive.

Saint Aubin said the European Commission helps with the costs of working from home by providing a screen and an appropriate work chair, but that it does not yet assist with the burden of high household energy costs. Kabis pointed out that the cost of living crisis is causing frustration for workers in all contexts. She noted that “folks [are] very unhappy with the increased cost of going back to the office, mostly from a commute and parking perspective”.

Showing the way

Organisations that aspire to be seen as a model employer have to rethink what that means in 2022 and beyond. Increasingly, a model employer is one whose leaders and managers demonstrate emotional intelligence without losing sight of productivity goals. The changing nature of work means that some aspects of a person’s personal life, far from irrelevant to their employer, is the foundation on which enduring work relationships are built.

Diversity and inclusion can be improved, in part, through placing individuals’ needs front and centre, as well as decentralising the talent pool to include historically overlooked geographies and demographics. In short, managing work flexibility is about casting a wider net to recruit staff, and tailoring working arrangements to each employee.

When the nature of work changes dramatically and at scale, as it has in the last couple of years, public sector organisations can set an example through the choices they make. Now perhaps more than ever, they have a significant opportunity to show the way.

The Global Government Forum webinar ‘Remote access: Can the move to hybrid working unlock greater diversity?’ was held on 21 June. You can watch the 75-minute webinar via our dedicated event page.

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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