Fit for the future: cementing sustainable flexible working practices

By on 15/12/2021 | Updated on 02/02/2022

The vast majority of UK civil servants switched to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic and most want to retain greater flexibility moving forward. At a recent Workday webinar, experts discussed the challenges posed to public sector organisations by flexible working and how they can put it onto a sustainable footing

The COVID-19 pandemic may have prompted the rise of the largest remote workforce in history, with nearly a third of employees worldwide set to have joined its ranks by the end of 2021, the webinar heard.

Recent data projections from US business consultancy Gartner indicate that around 32% of the world’s employees will be working remotely by the year’s end – up from 17% in 2019, said Deborah Kuness, senior psychologist with Peakon, a people analytics and employee engagement company owned by Workday, which hosted the webinar.

Deborah Kuness, Senior Psychologist, Peakon (a Workday company), United Kingdom

“There have definitely been advantages for some people in some roles: less travel time, more time to spend with family, more flex around work-life balance, and even some evidence that people can be more productive at home, although this probably depends on individual characteristics and personality to some degree as well,” she said.

“But some people have a worse environment. It may be small, it may be noisy, it may be busy, or really hard to get the right equipment. And then some jobs are just not suitable for hybrid working. And if there’s too much time working remotely, without physically seeing and connecting with people, this can lead to feelings of isolation and feelings of separation from the wider business.”

For most civil servants in the UK, the experience has been a positive one, and most would prefer to continue working from home for 2-3 days per week, according to research commissioned by the Cabinet Office’s Government Property Agency. As a result, government departments and agencies are having to think hard about how they make remote, flexible and hybrid working arrangements more sustainable, in order to recruit and retain talented and highly skilled staff.

Figures from Peakon’s latest global engagement survey, which involved 30 million employees from 160 countries, underline the scale of the challenges that organisations are facing. The Peakon Employee Expectations Report 2021 found that 59% of employees worldwide are disengaged at work and 29% say they are on the brink of burnout, while job satisfaction scores related to workload have fallen for staff with caring responsibilities, especially women. Meanwhile the proportion of employees’ comments that are focused on flexible working increased by 125% over the 2020 survey results.

“That is a significant increase,” said Peakon chief evangelist Patrick Cournoyer. “[It shows that] this is top of mind and top of conversation for employees, and [that] employee expectations are changing faster than ever. So it is very important for us as organisations to make sure that we stay on top of those expectations and how they are changing.”

Patrick Cournoyer, Chief Evangelist, Peakon (a Workday company), USA

Employee disengagement had significant effects on organisations’ teamwork and culture, as well as costing them a lot of time, effort and money, while the World Health Organization now recognised burnout as a significant issue across the world, he said.

Kuness said organisations needed to think about three important issues in order to make a success of the new arrangements and build flexibility into their working practices in a sustainable way.

“Firstly, it’s about providing choice and autonomy, and appreciating that everybody’s situation is different, and that [this] is OK,” she said. “I think leaders and managers need to be having conversations proactively with their people to make sure everybody’s needs are being met, and then navigating that in a really fair way.”

Secondly, ensuring that staff have opportunities for career development and growth had become more important, as employees were more likely to be seeking new jobs due to the greater mobility that was present in the employment market. Peakon data showed that the lack of a sense of growth was the largest predictor of employee attrition.

“Finally, communication has never been more critical – and it’s the two-way nature of communication that has become more important,” she said. “Seeking feedback and input from employees, putting them front and centre, and then tying all of that back to providing more of a sense of control and autonomy, has never been more key than it is now.”

Bringing mental health and wellbeing to the fore

NHS Professionals, which handles staffing for a quarter of England’s NHS Trusts, trialled a Peakon employee engagement survey on remote work following the massive Stand Up, Step Forward, Save Lives recruitment campaign that it launched during the pandemic.

“We were very much in the thick of it as the pandemic spread,” said Helen McMullen, head of talent management and development at the agency, which was charged with recruiting staff for the emergency Nightingale Hospitals that were set up around England, as well as for NHS Test and Trace and the UK’s national vaccination campaign.

Helen Mc Mullan, Head of Talent Management & Development, NHS Professionals

“All this happened as we also moved 80% of our workforce into working remotely, with the remaining 20% continuing to operate out of our client trust hospitals,” she said. “To say that was a challenge would be a bit of an understatement. But I am so proud of the support we were able to provide to our NHS, even as our staff had to balance this really critical work with the impact of the pandemic on their families, loved ones, home-schooling, and general lives.”

The Peakon survey focused on how NHS employees were coping with remote work, what effect it had on their wellbeing, and how NHS Professionals could support them through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The results of these monthly surveys brought the subject of mental health and wellbeing right to the forefront of our priorities,” said McMullan. “It became apparent that much more was needed to give to our people the support they required.”

The measures taken included creating a robust wellbeing strategy that was audited by Unum, an insurance company specialising in disability and critical illness; setting up a wellbeing working party to lead initiatives; and getting more than 30 team members to train as Mental Health First Aiders.

“Alongside this, we created a wealth of resource[s] on our learning management system, covering topics such as managing teams remotely; working from home with children; how to maintain good physical and mental health; and a whole host of links to external websites offering support and guidance during what were unprecedented times,” McMullan said. “We [also] introduced a number of initiatives that supported the health and wellbeing of our people.”

These included:

  • My Time: a half-hour of protected time each week for staff to switch off during working hours
  • We Are Not in the Same Boat sessions: weekly video calls (inspired by the title of a song written during the pandemic) that offer a safe space for people to share how they are feeling and get support from colleagues
  • Walk and Talk meetings: team meetings that are held only on mobile phones to give staff the opportunity to get outside and walk around as they participate
  • Coffee Connections: video meetings offering staff the opportunity to meet new colleagues online over a cup of coffee

Competing for talent

Cournoyer stressed that public sector organisations needed to start actively planning and building flexible working policies and practices now, in order to ensure they were able to compete for talent with the private sector in two to three years’ time.

“That is something every organisation needs to think about, because younger generations in the workforce have very clear, very high expectations around what [their employers are] providing [for] them and how they’re going to build their individual growth plans,” he said.

Introducing new technology into the workplace was one key area in which the public sector was lagging a little behind the private sector and needed to look at how it could become more effective, said Cournoyer.

“Bringing technology into an organisation at scale is tough,” he said. “However, it is the future. And it absolutely [has] a proven ability to empower this new world of work – this flexible working – in a much more effective way.”

As well as embracing new technology, organisations needed to “put the effort and time in now” to ensure that their data was secure across systems that provided extensive remote access to employees, he said.

McMullan said it was important to provide security training for staff who work remotely. “When we first went remote working, we sent out some really good guidelines about where you are, and keeping your space secure and not having your screens accessible or people hearing your conversations,” she said. “And we linked that to wellbeing and moving away from your computer and getting outside.”

Cournoyer said general training for managers was also crucial to ensure they could handle a hybrid working environment, which required them to be effective in “so many more ways” than in the past, including dealing with employees’ issues around mental health and finance. “I think organisations need to be focused on skills and skills-based knowledge,” he said.

Kuness concurred. “More often than not, it’s the soft skills that make up the biggest difference,” she said. “So, having and using high levels of emotional intelligence, being open minded, approachable, available, supportive, being able to have great conversations, [and] being open to feedback.”

Dodging the digital divide

Finally, the panel addressed the questions of how diversity, equity and inclusion have been impacted by remote working and how organisations could prevent a digital divide and inequality of promotional opportunities from forming between employees who chose different hybrid working options.

Kuness said there could be a risk in some organisations that employees who chose to spend more of their working hours at home rather than in the office – perhaps because they had caring responsibilities – may be overlooked for promotion.

“We need to think about how do we encourage individual employees, whoever they are, to have more ownership, in terms of proactively going and seeking things like development opportunities and proactively networking with people; and giving them the confidence to do that, reaching out to people, having good conversations, voicing concerns, whether they’re in the office or not,” she said.

Cournoyer said one way that organisations could prevent bias from entering into the evaluation of employees in a remote-working environment was to switch from measuring productivity in terms of hours worked to setting expectations based on the output and results of work done.

“And I do think organisations need to create the ability for employees to have connected and ‘no-friction’ workplaces from home, if they are going to have a flexible work policy,” he said. During the pandemic many employees “didn’t have that speed of WiFi to be able to support Zoom”, which had created “a significant frustration point” for a lot of employees, Cournoyer pointed out, adding that many organisations have since increased stipends or taken other steps to boost employees’ WiFi speeds.

McMullan said the wider trend towards hybrid working would free up resources that could be used to support home-working. “I think organisations across the world will start decreasing their footprint in offices,” she said. “So actually, you will see the savings being made there, which they may then put into helping [employees] to build a home-working space that’s suitable. It’s still early days, but I think it’s coming.”

This webinar was hosted by Workday on 21 October 2021, with support from Global Government Forum. You can watch the 75-minute webinar via our dedicated event page.

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