New rules of engagement: the changing role of public service leaders post-pandemic

By on 15/03/2022 | Updated on 15/03/2022

The world is emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic but with crises becoming more common, employees will continue to need new support mechanisms so they can function at their best. At a GGF webinar, Jack Aldane heard panellists discuss how the pandemic has altered the role of civil service leaders, and why keeping staff engaged will be key in the new world of work

Civil service leaders and managers have been undeniably put through their paces in the last 24 months. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a manager’s essential tasks were to instruct, coach, discipline and delegate effectively. But when civil services around the world had to scramble to counteract the biggest public health crisis in a century – largely remotely from makeshift home offices – managers had a whole new set of tasks to contend with.

Now, as many civil services move towards a hybrid work model, and against a backdrop where crisis response is becoming business as usual, line managers are grappling with maintaining morale and collective endeavour and supporting staff mental health and wellbeing – all while running existing public services and building new ones.

To address these and other challenges, Global Government Forum invited three speakers to share some key discoveries about leading staff through turbulent times, and how managers can prepare for the workplace challenges ahead.

Gertrud Ingestad

At the start of the webinar, Gertrud Ingestad recalled coming into work on the first day in her role as director general of human resources and security for the European Commission. This was in March 2020, “D-Day of the pandemic”, as she described it. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the Commission, had already signalled that she wanted to modernise human resources. When the pandemic hit not long after, that mission was accelerated. Within the space of a week, 40,000 people working for the Commission migrated to teleworking. Staff and managers alike stepped up to the challenge admirably, Ingestad said. Teams coordinated quickly and enthusiastically around new processes and expectations, and productivity fared well, as did morale.

Read more: Together apart: embedding successful remote working practices in the public sector

Yet such changes inevitably took their toll, with burnout high among expats isolated in their apartments and parents juggling the stresses of remote work and full-time childcare. “Trust”, “care” and “flexibility” thus became watchwords for Ingestad and her team. The situation required them to listen carefully and intently to what staff were telling them about their experiences and emotions. The Commission’s annual staff engagement survey carried out last autumn shows engagement rose 5% on the previous year, an improvement Ingestad attributes to the extra care given to staff “from all sides”. The European Commission wants to do more, she said, however organisations that want to demonstrate leadership must now deliver high-level work engagement.

“We at the Commission are not as attractive as we used to be, for different reasons, and in different member states. We need to review our attractiveness [by asking]: How do we become truly digital? How do we support people throughout their careers? How do we deal with diversity and inclusion?” she said.

A ‘new’ 21st century begins

What do such stories tell us about the bigger picture when it comes to leadership in the ‘new normal’? For that, Rupert McNeil, chief people officer at the UK Cabinet Office, offered not an anecdote, but an interesting thesis. “Arguably, the beginning of the pandemic was when the 21st century actually started,” he said.

The next phase of evolution for leadership in the UK civil service will be to serve a more distributed workforce. The plan is for 20,000 roles to be moved out of London and the South-East by 2030. By 2025, half of the most senior government roles are set to migrate “back in the regions”, under the UK government’s Levelling Up agenda. The key to making this work, McNeil said, is interoperability: the ability of all people and parts of government to work together seamlessly whilst working apart.

Rupert McNeil

Wasn’t this already achieved during the pandemic? Not nearly well enough, said McNeil. The hybrid work model may have passed its proof of concept, but leaders are right to anticipate difficulties with maintaining inclusion and engagement as it becomes more embedded.

“My fear is that we’ve been spoiled in the pandemic,” McNeil said. “We’ve all been operating online, but hybrid can be the least satisfying way of working. When eight people are on a screen and three people are in the room, the three inevitably have an advantage by being there, so how do you make that system inclusive?”

Read more: Learn the lessons of COVID-19 remote working, says OPM as it publishes fresh guidance on telework

Fostering inclusivity is just one of the challenges we can expect in this wholesale change towards hybrid work. However, McNeil said that managers will have time to plan for these changes, because they and staff will likely spend the next two years recalibrating after the realities of the last. What managers must do right away is maintain staff engagement in a way that recognises differences in circumstance. “The experience of the person who is on their own in their apartment is very different from the person who is able to have their own office,” he said.  

Leaving the doldrums

Adam King, public sector lead for workforce transformation at Deloitte, has been supporting public sector leaders with their organisation’s project delivery for many years. In doing so, he has found it useful to think about the future of leadership with three distinct areas in mind: wellbeing; inclusion and new ways of working; and securing engagement. The first of these three is addressed directly in The State of the State, an annual report from Deloitte and UK think tank Reform. The latest report, based on 50 interviews with senior civil servants, shows wellbeing and mental health are now a firm priority for public sector leaders and employees.  

Adam king

Though developed nations are starting to emerge from the doldrums of the COVID-19 pandemic, public sector leaders admit to feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. As the turbulence of the last two years begins to taper off, King said, what is needed from managers is a new injection of social capital and autonomy around work.

King said leaders should encourage staff to work where they know they will be most productive. In Deloitte’s European Human Capital Trends survey, around 40% of respondents said that allowing some personal choice in determining how work gets done was the most important factor in making hybrid work sustainable for them.

Read more: Exclusive: vast majority of public servants still working remotely, GGF survey finds

This point touched on McNeil’s earlier mention of interoperability, and the role that government technology will play in fostering well-functioning, highly-engaged distributed civil services.

“One of the recent innovations in the UK government is GovWifi, which means that any government building [a civil servant] uses involves the same system, so [they] can just plug and play,” McNeil explained.

Flexibility and productivity

A common thread in all of the panellists’ views was the need for leaders to allow for workplace flexibility. So where do you draw the line, given that the technology that enables a UK civil servant to work from home also makes it possible for them to work abroad?

McNeil said leaders should be “as location-agnostic as possible”, though he believes social capital and the concentration of skills in specific geographies remains essential for organisations. For Ingestad, the need for social capital and “a meeting of values” is baked into the European Commission’s constitution. That said, the Commission will propose that its staff be allowed to work abroad for up to 10 days a year in specific circumstances, such as for family commitments. She said the decision to grant this flexibility will be taken by the human resources department “so as not to overburden middle managers, who are already having to take a lot more decisions than they did in the past”.

Another widely debated aspect of flexible working is the risk this poses people’s – and especially women’s – career development. Although more flexibility allows women to work around childcare, for example, it also means they’re more likely to work in the office less often than their male counterparts making them less visible to colleagues and at risk of being overlooked for promotion. All three speakers expressed a commitment to ensuring this doesn’t happen, though said delivering on this remains a work in progress.

When it comes to productivity, Ingestad said social capital plays an instrumental rather than incidental role for the Commission. “A lot of the productivity is there because of the sense of purpose and priorities around people.”

She added that Belgium’s decision to grant workers the ‘right to disconnect’ – meaning there is no pressure on staff to reply to emails or answer calls outside normal working hours – has been introduced to help ensure that Commission staff don’t reach breaking point.

Asked whether high levels of productivity can exist easily alongside wellbeing, King commented: “The question is this: when people are thinking about the work that they have to do on any given day, are they thinking about where they’re going to be most effective? The way we get the productivity gain is by matching the place in which we’re doing the work to the type of work we’re doing.”

In this brave new world of work, middle managers are already asking some tough questions. One is how they are to deal fairly with underperformers in a workforce that is more fragmented than ever. Ingestad said managers will need the support of their organisations to find the answer. King said another question on managers’ minds is how they can be expected to keep track of multiple working patterns across a permanently distributed workforce. The short answer, he said, is that none of them really can. Ownership of the work process should always stay with a manager’s team.

Through the best and worst of times, a manager’s key duty to their organisation is to deliver on a team’s outputs. Their main duty to their team, meanwhile, is to support them effectively and  to maintain engagement.  

The Global Government Forum webinar ‘Leading staff through turbulent times’ was held on 22 February, with the support of knowledge partner Deloitte. You can watch the 75-minute webinar via our dedicated event page.’

About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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