Managing a distributed workforce now and beyond COVID-19

By on 11/08/2020 | Updated on 27/01/2022
Many civil servants have had to balance working from home with looking after their children. (Photo by Ketut Subiyanto via Pexels).

Earlier this year, civil services worldwide found themselves having to transition thousands of employees to working remotely, often with just a few days’ notice. And as panellists explained during a recent GGF webinar, the focus now is on continuing to engage employees and preparing for long-term change.

During the webinar, hosted by Global Government Forum in association with Unit4 on 21 July, top civil servants from Canada, the UK, the Philippines and Malta discussed what their departments have done to support employees, while enterprise software specialist Unit4 provided a private sector perspective on change management.

The crux of a successful shift to home working, panellists agreed, is strong and compassionate management. “Fundamentally, working remotely is less about the technology and much more about how to manage – it’s about communication and engagement and avoiding people feeling isolated,” deputy minister of Transport Canada, Michael Keenan, said.   

Get management right and the productivity gains can be impressive. Alicia dela Rosa-Bala is chair of the Philippines’ Civil Service Commission, which serves as the government’s central HR unit and oversees 1.7 million employees. She pointed to an employee survey that found that despite the upheaval caused by the quick-fire move to alternative working arrangements, government workers had been more productive during lockdown than previously. However, it also found that organisational culture was critical – productivity was strongest in agencies that had a good communication system in place, were collaborative by nature and whose managers offered high levels of trust and support.

Lisa Dodman

Trust between managers and employees being crucial to successful remote working has not been lost on Unit4’s chief people officer, Lisa Dodman. The enterprise resource planning (ERP) software developer has 3,000 employees in 42 offices worldwide and works with 1,500 public sector organisations. Like the Philippines civil service, Unit4 has seen productivity rise – by 12% – since the start of lockdown. And as Dodman explained, instilling trust through effective management has been key. “[At the start of the pandemic] we felt what was needed was strong leadership, clear and regular communication, empowerment that laid the foundations for alternative ways to collaborate and a stronger need than ever before for empathy and trust,” she said. “Trust is absolutely driving everything that we do.”

Coronavirus has helped the company to focus on what it calls the “better normal” – putting people first and creating freedom of choice, she said. Measures implemented to reinforce this ethos include providing flexible working options to employees looking after children at home and reduced working hours with no loss of pay for those living with key workers.

The vision going forward is to regularly gage employees’ satisfaction levels and to allow them to choose how they might work in future. 

Maintaining team spirit

One of the struggles of remote working is engendering a sense of community and ‘togetherness’ when employees are working alone and in different locations. So, while trusting employees must be central to managers’ approach, so too should maintaining social connections.

“Home can be a really supportive place for quiet, concentrated work, for reading, for planned virtual meetings and for other tasks, but the office is really important in terms of engagement, collaboration and socialisation,” said Kate Guthrie, smarter working programme director and deputy director for workplace experience at the UK’s Government Property Agency. “There needs to be a real focus on wellbeing and inclusivity and ensuring that all those who are working remotely are still engaged; that there’s still the same team ethos and a sense of community.”

To do this the UK government has provided advice and guidance on how to stay connected and has introduced social activities such as online quizzes, morning coffee chats, access to an online notice board where people can share recipes, and even a virtual walk of the British coast.

Similarly, Unit4 offers staff fitness and meditation classes, has organised fancy dress video calls to create a sense of fun and has also introduced a programme of activities to help keep employees’ children occupied.

“One of the more challenging aspects of this remote working journey is loneliness and that kind of Groundhog Day monotony that people are facing,” Dodman said. “Being in lockdown for a long period of time, it becomes a bit of a pressure cooker. It’s that lack of connection that people miss most so we’ve tried to remedy that.”

The company has been keeping tabs on the health, wellbeing, happiness and resilience of its employees weekly through an engagement app.

Panellists agreed that looking after employees’ wellbeing should be a central focus for managers. (Photo by Alexander Dummer via Pexels).

Looking out for the wellbeing of staff has also been central to the Philippines’ approach. The government provides medical insurance while support mechanisms rolled out by agency leaders have included providing health and psychosocial interventions to help reduce stress and reimbursing reasonable expenses incurred while people are working from home to minimise any financial burden.

Supporting employees is essential, but as one civil servant commented during the webinar Q&A session, support for managers must also be taken into account. Unit4, Dodman explained, has taken concrete actions to ensure this. The company is providing mentoring and mental health awareness workshops, has introduced a manager toolkit and carries out weekly calls to give leaders the opportunity to discuss any concerns and to receive extra support should they need it.

Leading by example

As panellists agreed, strong and supportive leadership is crucial to keeping the machine of government working in these new and unfamiliar circumstances.

Coronavirus is driving a wholesale reimaging of how people work and what’s required is robust leadership to drive that reimagining process, Transport Canada’s Keenan said. “On one level, what’s needed is constant communication about the necessity for change and the opportunities that come with it and demonstrating results along the way. And on another, it’s keeping in focus the fact that we’re social animals.”

Michael Keenan

He recommended managers lead by example. Keenan starts every call with a colleague or team by asking how they’re doing. “Successful organisations have been able to emulate that through the chain so that everybody’s checking in on everybody else on a human level,” he said. “Having that human connection before launching into work is important.”

Another aspect of good management, according to Dodman, is recognising that while the pandemic has meant that many are under considerable pressure and working longer hours, downtime must be encouraged.

“In times of COVID when people are stuck at home, if leaders are constantly working, others will too,” she said. “Yes, let’s work but I think we also have an obligation to make sure there are moments of downtime because people are getting this kind of work-from-home fatigue.”

To help counter this, Unit4 is encouraging employees to use only email on Friday afternoons, recognising that regular video calls can be draining. “Give people a bit of time to slow down and reflect,” Dodman said.

Not starting from scratch

Anthony Gatt, permanent secretary at Malta’s Ministry for Energy and Water Management, who also heads up a working group on remote working across government, described how Malta had already made progress on modernising the civil service’s working practices before the pandemic hit. He admitted it had been challenging but that getting over the first hurdle – allaying managers’ scepticism and getting them on board – had been key to driving change.

As part of a suite of reforms – including reducing bureaucracy and moving from paper-based to digital processes – work on a transition to remote working began in summer 2019 and has been accelerated by COVID-19.

“When I first mentioned remote working to my fellow managers last year, there was some backlash,” Gatt said. “Once I explained the benefits – improving employees’ work-life balance and helping the organisation to attract and retain talent – I got them onside and they’re now mentoring employees to be prepared for this longer-term change.”

Anthony Gatt

Like the other panellists, Gatt emphasised that trust must feature large. “We want the organisation to be built on trust. It’s one of those things you have to work hard at but which can be lost overnight – managers have to keep focused on it 24/7.”

Though the pandemic was completely unexpected and forced civil services to enable huge change and in incredibly tight timeframes, like Gatt, the other panellists and their organisations weren’t starting from scratch.

Transport Canada began moving towards a more flexible approach to working arrangements two years ago as part of an agenda to work digitally. It had already expanded its bandwidth, tablets or portable computers were standard for all employees and it was well advanced in getting rid of landlines and having all employees use smartphones. 

The UK government, meanwhile, has been working on its smarter working programme since 2018 and has made a commitment for all 42 government departments to become ‘smarter working mature’ by the end of 2022. “Smarter working for us means people being able to make the right choice about where, when and how they work with all the enablers in place to support them,” Guthrie explained.

This meant that when the pandemic hit, policies were already in place to support informal homeworking and that tens of thousands of civil servants had the tools and technologies needed to enable them to work remotely.   

The future of working practices

Clearly, the pandemic has driven major changes to the way we work, in many cases accelerating and crystallising a journey civil services were already on. So, what might working practices look like in five or 10 years’ time?

Alicia dela Rosa-Bala

Rosa-Bala listed three changes she expects to see: more cooperation between government bodies and between government bodies and the private sector; more flexible work arrangements and a continuing push towards digital service delivery; and a greater focus on the civil service’s people. “We’re still very much learning through our own experiences and we expect there will be a lot of adjustments along the way,” she said. “The COVID-19 pandemic will change the way we do things – we want to ensure we build a better, more sustainable normal beyond the pandemic.”

In the UK, Guthrie sees a shift towards more civil servants moving out of Whitehall to the regions and far greater choice about where people work.

“There’s lots to do in terms of transforming the civil service and our future ways of working – moving to hybrid models that include home-working, near-home and office,” she said. “And very much the focus is on building communities within those workplaces, within organisations and across organisations, enabling collaboration, connection and engagement – and creativity with it.”

Guthrie added: “The future, for us, is about flexibility and choice – choice of workplace, choice of working areas that you can go to depending on the type of work that you’re doing, all supported by interoperable ICT so that people can effectively move anywhere and still be able to connect with their organisation and their colleagues.”    

Kate Guthrie

Guthrie echoed Rosa-Bala’s belief that the pandemic will spur closer cross-government working and also sees a move towards a more informal way of working in which hierarchies are broken down, red tape is reduced and civil servants at all grades are involved in significant decisions.

Keenan, meanwhile, pointed out that the shift to flexible working caused by COVID-19 has leapt ahead of the policies and laws that govern it and that what’s needed in the years to come is convergence. “In the public sector, we have a very complex workplace with a lot of architecture and a lot of collective agreements with labour unions and the legislation around it,” he said. “And I think in five years it’ll evolve to catch up with what’s happening on the ground. That’ll be a big change because right now we’re managing without a model.”

He said he considers great success to be the re-engineering and re-conceiving of service offerings so that they work just as well remotely as through traditional methods. “The success of remote work is intrinsically tied to our ability to reinvent how we deliver service,” he said. “The good news is that this emergency gives us a great opportunity to accelerate changes and to accomplish in a matter of months what would normally take years in terms of reinventing large national institutions.”

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, it seems there have been two common realisations: that COVID-19 is driving not just a short-term shift but wholesale culture change and a more permanent move towards flexible working, and that maintaining human connection is vital. 

Guthrie crystallised the panellists’ sentiment: “We’re learning about caring for one another, being cognisant of our wellbeing, of our resilience, and being able to maintain levels of engagement whether somebody is in an office or not.”

For more insights into managing a distributed workforce, watch the webinar on YouTube here:

Slides from this webinar are available to download here

If you would like to contact our webinar Knowledge Partner Unit4 please email Mark Gibbison, global head of Public Sector, Unit4 at: [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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