There’s no going back: the future of hybrid working in civil services

By on 10/06/2021
Empty offices? Research shows that many officials would like more flexibility about where they work after the pandemic. Credit: Kelly Lacy/Pexels

Research shows that many officials do not want to return to the office full-time after the pandemic. At a recent GGF webinar, experts from across the world discussed how governments are implementing new ways of working and explored risks and opportunities they face. Ben Willis reports

“Hybrid working is certainly on the minds of all employers – public and private sector – these days. If it isn’t, it should be; because it’s here to stay. It will continue and it will become the new normal,” said Dr Stian Nordengen Christensen, deputy director of the Section for Organisational Development at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Almost overnight, the coronavirus pandemic forced millions of workers around the world to shift from office- to home-based working. But as the restrictions on social contact begin to ease, many professionals do not want to return to “normal” and seek more flexibility about where they work.

Dr Stian Nordengen Christensen, deputy director, Section for Organisational Development, Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway

In the UK, for example, 97% of the 2,400 public servants surveyed by the FDA union said they wanted to continue to have the option of working at home even if that is no longer the default post-pandemic. The FDA said the survey demonstrated a “permanent shift” in attitude to working practices. Research by GGF and Dell Technologies has generated similar results, with 82% of UK civil servants saying that they’d like to work remotely more frequently in future than they did prior to the pandemic.

Against this backdrop, hybrid working is rapidly gaining currency as a model for the future workplace. Its mixed approach gives greater freedom for staff to work remotely some of the time, while still enjoying the benefits of having a physical workplace to go to on occasion – for meetings, team building and other activities.

Christensen shared his view during a recent webinar – hosted by Global Government Forum and supported by knowledge partner EY – at which experts from around the world explored the emerging concept of hybrid working and considered how such models can be best implemented in governments.

Future working practices

There is no one-size-fits-all model for governments to adopt when it comes to hybrid working.

Malta’s government, for example, is adopting a blanket remote working model for the whole of its civil service. The government will soon launch a remote working policy that will enable employees to work “from anywhere at any time,” said Anthony Gatt, permanent secretary of Malta’s Ministry for Energy, Enterprise and Sustainable Development.

Anthony Gatt, permanent secretary, Ministry for Energy, Enterprise and Sustainable Development, Malta

“The aim of this policy is to promote a healthier work-life balance, set up a formal framework for [its] administration, and motivate employees to work in a more effective manner,” he said.

The policy, which was instigated in 2019 before the pandemic, will enable employees to work as easily from their home, a different country, a park or a café, explained Gatt. A number of remote working spaces are also being established across the island that staff can book through an app on their phones to use as and when they want.

A series of measures, covering areas such as HR and digitalisation, underpin the remote working policy. Together, these will provide a complete framework to enable a well-managed transition to remote working, Gatt said.

Finding a middle way

Other governments are consulting with their workforces on future plans. Dominic Brankin, director of workplace services at the UK’s Government Property Agency (GPA), said that over the past year his organisation had been gathering data from some 25,000 civil servants to better understand individuals’ experiences of home working.

The findings broadly echo the results of the FDA and GGF surveys, with civil servants saying that as coronavirus restrictions ease, they don’t want to return to a daily commute. “On average civil servants in the UK told us they would like to go back to the office maybe two or three days a week,” said Brankin.

But a significant minority of civil servants – around 20%  – said they were looking forward to returning to the workplace “for most of the time”, according to Brankin. This underscores the fact that home working has not been a positive experience for everyone and any future arrangements must reflect individuals’ needs.

But while hybrid-working models should reflect employees’ circumstances and wishes as far as possible, said Brankin, personal preference “can’t be the be all and end all”.

Dominic Brankin, director, Workplace Services, Government Property Agency, United Kingdom

“We really do need to start with an understanding of what our business needs to be able to deliver its outcomes, and use that as the basis for the context-setting within which choice and flexibility can be exercised,” he said. “The big challenge is how you create an overall and rounded workplace experience that can take account of all of that, and that’s very much what we’re trying to do.”

Steered by an expert group of leaders from across governments, he said, the GPA will provide managers with materials to support their future workforce planning. “[We’re] using all of that expertise, knowledge and insight to develop a set of guidance toolkits and playbooks that can help organisations work through these issues, and make their response relevant to their context,” Brankin said.

Bottom up

A further complicating factor is that the activities workers have said they would most like to use offices for in the future – collaboration and meetings – may be “ironically… one of the hardest things for us to achieve,” said Rupert Steptoe, UK&I workforce advisory leader at consultancy EY. For any organised, office-based activities are likely to constrain people’s freedom to choose when and where they work.

“If teams work from home two to three days a week, which is what we’re hearing people would like, then there’s almost no chance of a team of 10 people having 50% of that team in the office at the same time,” Steptoe said. “Therefore you cannot leave this to chance; we have to take an active intervention.”

An incremental approach that tests ideas would be preferable to a “big bang” shift to hybrid working arrangements, Steptoe advised. “Our view is that trying to do that top-down – which, if we’re honest, is the traditional way of doing it in government – is going to alienate our workforce very quickly,” he said. “Therefore, we are recommending that you do it at team levels, and then work upwards and outwards to see how that impacts a broader organisation.”

Two-tier risks

One potential risk associated with a shift to hybrid working is the emergence of a “two-tier” workforce. This is where professionals who are in the office enjoy more career advantages – due to greater visibility and networking opportunities – compared with colleagues who spend more time working from home.

Rupert Steptoe, UK&I workforce advisory leader, EY

The responsibility for preventing such a situation lies with senior management, said Christensen: line managers may need new skills, guidance and support to help address the potential problem. “We haven’t cracked that one yet, but it is one thing that we need to look at,” he said. “Bringing teams together, I think, will be important.”

But while there are some risks, there is also an opportunity to address some of the tensions that came with hybrid working’s predecessor – flexible working – argued Steptoe. “Many of the challenges of a two-tier system were apparent in a flexible working environment, where some people – either through choice or not – worked in a very different way to their colleagues,” he said.

“The exciting opportunity about hybrid working is that much more of the workforce is going to be having a much more similar experience. And so therefore, [while] there is a risk, there’s a much greater opportunity to break down the barriers of flexible working, because so many more of us will be in and out of the office on different days and not creating those same real-life networks that we might have done before. We’ve got much better at creating those networks virtually, and have learned how to operate virtually.”

One potentially thorny problem is the prospect of growing inequalities between “frontline” staff who are unable to work from home because of the nature of their roles and those who can, said Steptoe. “There is always the perception issue about those people who are going to be working frontline and those who are going to be more office-based or working from home,” he said.

“And the perception…of one being treated in one way and being allowed to work from home and the rest of the workforce being treated in another way and being expected to be on site every day… I think that’s where you could have real frictions,” he added.

Here to stay

Given these complexities, as the immediate dangers from COVID-19 abate, could there be a “drift” back to the office?

The consensus was that there have been clear productivity and other gains even from the somewhat chaotic shift to home working necessitated by the pandemic, said Brankin. Now, a more deliberate and structured framework that maximises the benefits of hybrid working is needed, he added. “We need to see how we can take that and make it be more about a sustained change in the way we think about how we work, where we work and when we work,” he said.

While Steptoe said that different organisations will have to reflect on their optimal balance of remote and office-based working, there is unlikely to be a mass move back to the office. “I just don’t see that you can remain an attractive employer if you’re not giving people the opportunity to work in a hybrid manner.”

For Christensen, the future will come down to how managers choose to manage their workforce in response to employees’ individual needs and organisational priorities. “I think that managers will be tempted to try to turn back the clock, but it will prove completely impossible,” he concluded.

Global Government Forum’s webinar ‘A future of hybrid working: adapting to a long-term shift out of the office’ was held on May 18, with the support of EY. You can view the full webinar below or on our event page.

About Ben Willis

Ben Willis is a journalist and editor with a varied background reporting on topics including public policy, the environment, renewable energy and international development. His work has appeared in a variety of national newspapers including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Times, as well as numerous specialist business, policy and consumer publications.

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