Experimenting with flexible working: testing out what works in the new world for public services

By on 01/05/2023 | Updated on 01/05/2023

Around the world, the way public servants work is a far cry now from pre-pandemic, with hastily-organised remote working giving way to a more considered hybrid model approach. At a GGF webinar, public servants from three continents convened to discuss how they are reshaping government property portfolios and the mechanisms helping teams deliver in this new world of work

The COVID-19 pandemic proved an accelerator for scores of government projects and programmes including progress towards modernising how and where public servants worked. Now, governments are taking stock of the lessons of the last three years and working to embed flexibility – but data on exactly what works and what doesn’t is hard to come by. In this Global Government Forum webinar, leaders from Canada, the US, the European Commission and South Africa shared insights into what they are doing to ensure public servants can do their best work in new ways.

Here, we present snippets of the conversation, with the accompanying clips.

Allison Heikens Azevedo, deputy commissioner at the Public Buildings Service (PBS) of the US General Services Administration started by saying that “I think this period of time, post pandemic, we’re dealing with probably the greatest opportunities, and also the greatest challenges”.

She gave an overview of the PBS’s work to right size and reshape its portfolio. The service is responsible for over 8,700 buildings that are either owned or leased by the federal government and house 1.1 million federal employees and contractors.

Its overarching objective is to enable people who work in government buildings to deliver the missions of their respective departments and agencies through creating the right working environment equipped with the right technology.

To do this, Heikens Azevedo explained, it must maintain relationships with key stakeholders including the Office of Management and Budget – which must be kept abreast of the funding requirements necessary to reshape the portfolio – and with industry partners “who deliver 90% of the work that we do”.

It is also – given its significant presence in many metropolitan cities – working with communities to minimise the impact on surrounding businesses, given that many feds have transitioned to hybrid working and are no longer in offices full time.

Along with enhancing relationships with these groups and stakeholders, effectively communicating to staff the change management programme – which is laid out in its latest five-year strategic plan – is key. As is providing “seamless and secure technology” to a distributed workforce.

The agency experiments, runs pilots and creates a “feedback loop” with employees to understand what works for them and what doesn’t.

Touching on the recruitment and retention issues faced by governments worldwide, she said: “Making attractive work environments and really focusing on the proper purpose-driven culture is just as important as the salaries that we’re able to offer in the federal government.

“The opportunities are abundant. And whether we’re working in the home, whether we come in for collaboration, meetings, meetings on demand, more flexible environments, satellite office networks and flex space… all these ways of working, are paramount to how we design the future space.”

Here, she also touches on achieving net zero across the federal government’s property portfolio, and on cybersecurity and the need to ensure IT systems are “properly safeguarded”.

Stéphan Déry, assistant deputy minister, real property services at Public Services and Procurement Canada, shared details of the hybrid working model adopted in Canada and what it means for the public service.

He explained that the government had already started modernising its workplace to leverage the benefits of activity-based working and transitioning to a hybrid work model but that the pandemic represented a strategic opportunity to accelerate this programme.

Though there is no one-size-fits-all, Déry highlighted that the public service believes a hybrid work model “is a practical way to offer employees flexibility and a better work-life balance”.

With this in mind, the agency is focusing on designing spaces that supports activity-based working and “takes into consideration the value of working together in person to collaborate, innovate, build trust, and creates a sense of community”.

This ties in with the move from “remote by necessity to hybrid by design”.

Aside from building an office portfolio with modern and cost-effective workspace and keeping the wellbeing of employees top of mind, the changes being made are also helping to advance the government’s climate change and accessibility priorities and reconciliation with the Canada’s indigenous people.

“Through our Future of Work Agenda, we are redesigning a greener, more accessible, inclusive and barrier-free environment for public servants and the public,” Déry said.

He added that creating a hybrid work model that promotes flexibility, productivity and wellness will be a magnet for talented candidates to the Government of Canada, and that it will continue to work with private sector partners to share perspectives “so that we can better imagine the workplace of tomorrow”.

In his opening comments, Emmanuel Kgomo, chief director of South Africa’s Department of Public Service and Administration emphasised that COVID-19 has not fundamentally changed the way public services are delivered or received but has triggered progress towards easier access to government services by citizens and businesses. For a number of reasons though – not least limited personal resources and connectivity – face-to-face remains the preferred means of access.

In terms of the government workforce, the pandemic highlighted the need to increase remote working mechanisms but challenges around IT, connectivity and departments having to prioritise spending in other areas rather than on technology had hampered wholesale change. However, Kgomo said, there have been “developments and opportunities”.   

Overall, the government has better technological reach and has facilitated better interaction and communication between colleagues, enabling exchange of ideas and expertise and greater use of platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams – though Kgomo acknowledged that inadequate funding meant continued use of such tools may be limited.

He also highlighted that public service leaders are sceptical about colleagues working remotely due to difficulties monitoring and gaging productivity, and trust issues among co-workers.    

Christian Roques, deputy director general, HR operations at the European Commission’s directorate-general for human resources and security set out how the pandemic prompted a “dramatic” change in how the Commission’s employees work – and for good.

He began by highlighting that the Commission – an organisation of 32,000 – attracts most of its workforce from the private sector (from law firms, banks and the communications sector, for example) and is formed primarily of ex-patriot officials from other countries. It must therefore be an attractive employer.

It had already started changing its model prior to the pandemic but COVID proved a “trigger point” for greater progress. Spurred in part by the signing of the European Green Deal in 2020 which sets out its ambition to reduce carbon emissions by 60%, and by cost-saving imperatives, it looked at creating a new HR strategy fit for the future that baked in flexibility and the optimisation of building space.

Before COVID hit, the commission was renting huge conference centres where staff, stakeholders, experts from member states and others would meet – now a lot of that is done virtually.

But the changes run deeper too. The commission had a rigid system of people being present in the office for a certain number of hours every day – but “we don’t measure presence in the office anymore… now it’s about output”. This change meant training managers to monitor productivity in different ways.

As a result of the move away from full-time office work, the commission needs fewer offices than before. Now, the focus is on “dynamic, collaborative spaces”, Roques said. Hot desking has become the norm with people encouraged to use a booking tool to book space in any of the commission’s offices depending on the project and team they’re working with at any given time.

Roques acknowledged that it could have met with resistance and dissatisfaction but by spending a lot of time and effort on communicating the benefits of the changes to staff, it avoided any major backlash. Indeed, an employees survey launched last year – three months after the changes were embedded – showed a 60% satisfaction rate.  

However, it also found there were more significant drawbacks for managers than more junior staff so it worked on responding to their concerns and the concerns of those with disabilities for example.

These efforts wielded results – the latest staff satisfaction rating was found to be 83% and is the same among managers and rank-and-file colleagues. Rating were high on wellbeing indicators but also on performance, user resources and interaction with stakeholders.

“A lot of what we were afraid of did not happen,” Roques said.

After panellists’ opening presentations, questions rolled in from the webinar’s live audience. The first one asked whether the changes that have been made since the start of the pandemic – both in terms of working arrangements and public service delivery – are here for good.

Listen to the answers to that question here, including from Julie Waddell Smith who stepped in for Déry for the Q&A segment. Points focused on attraction and recruitment (and virtual recruitment) – particularly of talented young people and graduates – better work-life balance, enhanced technology, loss of human connection.

Roques was asked to expand on the points he’d made about lower satisfaction ratings among managers than among staff in the European Commission overall and how it had gone about changing management capability to manage outputs over presence.

Heikens Azevedo also weighed in on the topic. In her view, a team-based approach, alignment on goals, refreshing project management principles, and a tight review process – that that everybody is on the same page with performance metrics – are key. As are continually enforcing core values, celebrating successes and reinforcing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility “in everything we do”.

Kgomo was asked whether the South African government, in maintaining office-based delivery, was having to compete harder with the private sector for talent. He explained that it is more a case of having to compete with other public service organisations such as municipal governments, and about higher salaries and more attractive incentives.

The conversation moved on to the importance of connection and collaboration between team members and whether it was proving to be a priority or concern among staff. Waddell Smith said there were positive and negatives to returning to the office. She also noted that people are having some great informal conversations with colleagues that they wouldn’t necessarily have had before so there was a need to reframe expectations about productivity measurement. “We’re still in the experimentation phase of in-office presence,” she said.

She also mentioned the benefits of flexible working for mothers of young children in particular.

Roques’ answer focused on newcomers who may struggle without a mentor working next to them and the need to rethink “how we organise ourselves when we’re in the office, for onboarding and when leave”, for example.

Another question asked whether there were strategies to overcome situations where there was not a strong political will to move to hybrid working. Heikens Azevedo said political motivation often came down to cost savings so hybrid work and the ability to rationalise office space as a result could be a strong argument.

Roques acknowledged that there could be push backs “because some people have nostalgia for the way we used to work” but agreed that money could be a motivator and said what is crucial to making long-term change is showing people how it works – either through pilots and experimentation or through identifying successes in other organisations and countries. Ultimately, it is all about communication.

“The more you share,” he concluded. “The better result you will get.”  

To learn all this and more, you can watch the full Telethon: have three years of remote and flexible working changed public services for good? webinar on our dedicated events page. The webinar, hosted by Global Government Forum, was held on 28 March 2023.

Want to write for GGF? We are always looking to hear from public and civil servants on the latest developments in their organisation – please get in touch below or email [email protected]

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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