If it flexes, it won’t break: innovation in the workspace

By on 25/03/2019 | Updated on 06/08/2019
At Innovation 19, from left to right: Martin Sellar, Kätlin Alvela, Sujay Bhattacharya and Mark Gray.

When public bodies launch coordinated reforms of workspaces, staff technologies and working practices, they can cut costs and environmental impact whilst boosting organisational flexibility and morale. At Innovation 2019, an international panel agreed that if you set your staff free of the office, they’re more likely to stick around. Ian Hall reports

“I joined the civil service in the 1990s, and technology was very limited,” recalled Martin Sellar. “You were tied to your desk. There was an expectation you were in the office five days a week.

“In the noughties, tech came in – but mainly for HQ staff – and the workplace started to go ‘open plan’,” he continued. “But in the current decade, the technology has exploded. The workplace is now virtually almost all open plan. One-to-one desking is now quite rare: it’s at most eight desks for every 10 people, and often six.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that in the civil service we may move to one desk for every five people in a few years’ time,” he added. “People are embracing this; they love it.”

Lost property, found efficiencies

Martin Sellar, programmes director for the UK’s Government Property Agency

Sellar is Programmes Director for the UK’s Government Property Agency, charged with shrinking and reforming the civil service’s estate – and integrating those reforms with changes to working practices, and the technologies required to support mobile and flexible working. Speaking last month at the Innovation 2019 conference, organised by Global Government Forum with the UK Cabinet Office, he explained that 70% of government departments are expected to meet smarter working standards by 2020.

Already, though, many staff are not “tied to desks; more and more, people have a choice” about where and how they work, he said. And offices are “becoming more a place for team-building than somewhere you go every day”.

Sellar was speaking on a panel alongside three others: UK government colleague Mark Gray, Director of Digital Transformation at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS); Kätlin Alvela, Director-General of the Estonian Emergency Response Centre; andSujay Bhattacharya, Director and Global Practice Head for Workspace Services at IT consultancy Wipro.

Building the case

Gray’s work illustrated Sellar’s strategic goals in action: some 91% of CPS staff “work remotely every quarter”, he explained. Reducing the number of desks has saved the CPS £20m on property costs, he said, and “the taxpayer has saved significantly more, as we have consolidated properties into other government hubs” – the big, multi-agency offices being established in key locations around the country.

Meanwhile, better communications technologies have enabled the CPS to divide regional teams between different offices. The body’s South East England operation, for example, has four bases, including one located in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the North East of England. “The job market for lawyers is competitive and it’s difficult to hire people,” he explained. “There is greater availability [of staff] in the North East, so that team is geographically split and yet works as a coherent whole,” he said.

Sujay Bhattacharya, director and global practice head for Workspace Services at IT consultancy Wipro

None of this requires particularly “whizzy tools”, said Gray. “It’s all about remote-access connectivity, cloud-based platforms, video conferencing – there’s nothing earth-shattering from a tech perspective here.” And moving to largely digital communications has environmental benefits as well as boosting efficiency: CPS has cut its use of paper from some 200m sheets a year four years ago to 30m today. The “transformation away from paper and physical discs has had a massive impact on our colleagues, enabling them to work flexibly,” he added.

Rapid response

Estonia’s Alvela brought a different perspective on the benefits of integrated technology and working practice reforms. Her organisation co-ordinates responses to emergency calls across Estonia, and she explained that it’s exploring the use of AI to hasten response times. “We are doing some testing,” she said, with the goal of finding out whether “a machine can read and understand information quicker, and save 20 seconds by getting information to rescue teams quicker… If we save one life, then we are successful.”

Kätlin Alvela, director-general of the Estonian Emergency Response Centre

But she emphasised the importance of keeping the technology accessible and user-friendly: “The systems that we use and create must be very simple, because people who work in our control rooms are 25- to 75-years-old,” she said. “We have single mums, we have people who want to work during night-time… you have to take into account that you have to be flexible. They must have the easiest IT systems to save lives.”

Sujay Bhattacharya, Director and Global Practice Head (Workspace Services) at Wipro, wholeheartedly agreed. “No-one taught people how to use Facebook or WhatsApp, as there was a consumer-driven focus on making things easy,” he said. “But when it came to government, IT somehow seemed to have some sort of pleasure in saying ‘let’s make the policy so they [users] are dependent on us’.” Successfully changing working practices, he said, requires a focus on “designing the service for the user.”

Innovative workspaces foster innovation

Just as importantly, they must be reliable: “Every time a system goes down for one person, studies show, it affects five other people.” But when organisations get it right, the results come through in many fields; it’s common to see staff turnover rates fall when people’s jobs become more flexible, said Bhattacharya.

Mark Gray, director of Digital Transformation at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)

Asked whether reforming workspaces and working practices can lead to a more innovative workforce, Sellar was clear. “Anyone who has worked in a building that’s modern, with break-out space, and in a more traditional office without one, it blows your mind,” he said. Without places to meet informally and exchange ideas, he added, “you’re not able to collaborate in a physical way. I recently worked in an area with no break-out space, and it affected the whole way I approached my work.”

Global Government Forum’s Innovation 2019 conference was held on 28 February in London. The full event, including this session, can be watched on video via the dedicated event site.

About Ian Hall

Ian is editor of Global Government Fintech a sister publication to Global Government Forum. Ian also writes for media including City AM and #DisruptionBanking. He is former UK director for the pan-European media network Euractiv (2011-2018), editor of Public Affairs News (2007-2011) and news editor of PR Week (2000-2007). He was shortlisted for ‘Editor of the Year’ at the British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME) Awards in 2010. He began his career in Bulgaria at English-language weekly the Sofia Echo. Ian has an MA in Urban and Regional Change in Europe and a BA in Economics, both from Durham University.


  1. Joanne Martel says:

    I would like to see their respective office.

  2. Huw Meredith says:

    At the London conference, the panel was asked the question: what is the published evidence that the new-style workspaces do actually improve productivity and/or wellbeing? Unfortunately the panel sidestepped the question. It would be useful to see how well, for example, low ratio hotdesking plus adequate flexible networking space benchmarks against 121 desk ratios with adequate flexible networking space. Could the forum provide references please.

    • Huw Meredith says:

      I guess as the forum is unable to provide references, that’s because the evidence does not exist. I’m sorry but just asserting that “staff love it” is not good enough. Decisions like this that directly affect the quality of everyone’s work environment should be based on sound evidence. I’m really disappointed that the forum has just ignored this – as did the panel at the conference.

  3. Sara Palmer says:

    Staff do not ‘love’ this. many hate it, and for those who are neurodivergent it can be hell. This is about saving money and nothing else.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *