‘It’s night and day’: how public and civil service offices are going to change post-COVID

By on 14/10/2022 | Updated on 17/10/2022
A photo of a conference call 'spiderphone'
Photo: depositphotos.com

In the second of a series of exclusive interviews, Stéphan Déry, a senior official in the Canadian government who is also president of The Workplace Network, tells Global Government Forum what governments will need to do to prepare public sector offices for the remote working future

The widespread move to remote and flexible working catalysed by the response to the coronavirus pandemic means many government organisations face a challenge to make sure teams can stay connected and integrated while working apart.

It is not, though, the first time that departments and agencies have tangled with this issue. As Stéphan Déry, a senior official in the Canadian government who is also president of The Workplace Network (TWN), recalls, many offices have so-called ‘spider phones’ in conference rooms – tabletop telephones that were intended to allow those in different locations to join in-person meetings. The fact that these have now mostly been usurped by more modern technology in the form of Teams and Zoom calls shows that COVID has already changed what the public sector needs from its offices – and there is more change to come.

Déry leads TWN, which is focused on sharing best practice on government real estate across its members, describes the difference between pre- and post-pandemic as “day and night”. Technology – and working habits – have opened up the opportunity for much more inclusive and effective meetings, that now public sector real estate needs to adapt too.

Read more: Office space (to think): inside the international network looking to the future of the public sector workplace

“When I had meetings with colleagues around the world, we had conference calls on the phone before. When we had these meetings, we had a spider phone in the middle of the table, and we always forgot about the people on the phone. They almost had to yell to say, ‘I’m here, I have a question’. That’s basically what happened in the past – and not that far in the past, we’re talking 2019. We had video conferencing in the government setting, but it was specialised equipment, and it was quite different to what we have today. So COVID-19 was a trigger for sustained change and innovation.”

Some of the changes have already been adapted into how government works, with officials now adept at using digital communication tools, and Déry highlights that the Canadian public service was able to maintain productivity when working remotely, with “significant results”.

Portrait (head shot) of Stephan Déry; RPS (Real Property Services); PSPC; ADM.
Stéphan Déry

“My colleagues launched programmes to sustain businesses across Canada and to help Canadians – and all done remotely. They were able to achieve a lot through the pandemic, so we see through that an opportunity to revaluate our traditional workplace strategy.”

This is leading to the creation of what Déry calls a “new hybrid model office”, where spaces are developed to make the most of these collaborative technologies – and to make the most of the likely reduced amount of time people will be spending in the office in future.

The key focus will be on helping people get the most from their time in the office in a new hybrid world, with Déry’s emerging top trend being developing employee experience of the office.

Upcoming webinar: Buildings for the future – reworking the public service office for the flexible working era

This is, he acknowledges, a shift. “Did we care before about the employee experience? I’m not so sure, not in all of our spaces, I can tell you that much,” he admits. But “people will not come to the office to sit down behind the desk all day and type in their computer”, he says.

“Most people won’t do that. There’s a certain percentage that want to do that, and the office will be available for that, but I think people will be looking for the workplace to provide them more of an experience, more of an opportunity to communicate, to collaborate, and to care for each another.”

‘Collaboration, creativity, community and caring’

Déry, who as well as his role with TWN is also the assistant deputy minister of real property services at Public Services and Procurement Canada, points to the UK – a TWN member – for insight on what this new approach will mean. UK Government Property Agency chief executive Steven Boyd named what he calls the ‘four Cs of government property’ – collaboration, creativity, community and caring – that will encourage people to make use of the office.

Key to this is making sure that the workspaces available to public and civil servants have the flexibility to match the work they need to do throughout the day – so called activity-based workplaces, according to Déry.

“About 10% of our space was modernised before COVID in some way to become an activity-based workplace, but a lot more of it was all desks to work on your own,” he says. “And I think this will be shifting significantly. Go back to some of those four Cs: collaboration – I don’t think you do that at your desk all by yourself; creativity – it takes interaction to get your mind in a creative mode; community and caring for one another and your team – again, that’s pretty hard to do at an office all by yourself all day. So all of these, to me, are what’s going to drive the office of the future.”

Fit for the flexible working future

There are numerous advantages to this more flexible working approach – both for staff members’ work-life balance and governments’ recruitment options.

“Let’s say you have a young kid, and they play sport, and you have to drive them to the hockey rink by four o’clock. Instead of being stressed in traffic, now you can probably work from home. It’s going to take a little bit more scheduling, but it has the opportunity to provide the best of both worlds – helping people from a work life-balance perspective and helping employers to hire staff from almost anywhere in Canada.”

Expanding the boundaries of recruitment not only helps in tackling recruitment pressures described by many governments as the “war for talent”, but can also bring in new perspectives from outside the administrative centres where governments are typically based.

Read more: Belgian officials set for pay boost as government joins global warnings of ‘war for talent’ for civil servants

As indicated by Boyd’s comments, such moves are being considered not only in Canada but by other governments too. Déry conducted a series of podcast interviews with peers around the world to help the TWN (whose members are Canada, Estonia, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, the UK and the US) keep on top of post-COVID developments. As well as an interview with Boyd, Déry spoke to officials in Ireland, Finland, Norway, South Korea, New Zealand, Netherlands, the US and Indonesia about the post-COVID office, with many moving away from “workplace as a commodity – where you come in, you have a desk, and you sit there all day – to a place where people are equipped and engaged to excel”.

This aligns with a move to unassigned seating, or hotdesking, to encourage people to use the different parts of the office as they complete different tasks during their day – the so-called activity-based workplace, versions of which are implemented in European countries, and which is part of the Government of Canada’s workplace strategy.

“Unassigned seating is almost everywhere, and people are asking for it. Why? Because they want to benefit from more space to collaborate. So we’re looking for a smaller footprint and greener and more accessible workspaces.”

And according to Déry, a lot of existing workspaces are not suited to this new way of working. “The majority of government offices are not modernised,” he says. “We have limited wifi – believe it or not you probably get better wifi at Starbucks than some of our buildings, let’s be honest.”

So changes have to made and – if public and civil servants are wary of giving up their desk – be assured that Déry practices what he preaches as the assistant deputy minister of real property services in Public Services and Procurement Canada, which is responsible for around 4,000 employees nationwide.

“I don’t have an office,” he reveals. “I traded a big corner office for a standing desk in the middle of everybody. And my name is not on it because I move from one day to the next.”

As well as benefits in terms of the more productive use of space, such an approach allows for a flatter organisational structure, with staff more able to access senior management. “People like that,” he says.

This change also chimes with the new post-pandemic reality. Remote meetings and flexible working has democratised discussions, Déry says, with everyone in a team being their own little square on the screen.

“If I go back to my spider phone example, those people who would have been on a spider phone have a place at the table like never before – they can raise their hand,” he says.

“So the question is how do we keep that now we’re in the hybrid model? We need to equip our employees with the engaging space that they need so they can excel in their work.”

This is the second of a three-part series of articles in which Global Government Forum will be exploring the key themes around what the future of the public sector office looks like post-COVID. Read the first article, Office space (to think): inside the international network looking to the future of the public sector workplace, and look out for a forthcoming article on how to improve the energy efficiency and accessibility of public and civil service estates.

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About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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