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

By on 27/09/2022 | Updated on 28/09/2022
Government offices in Utrecht, Netherlands, commissioned by the Dutch Central Government Real Estate Agency and opened in 2018. Photo: The Workplace Network
Government offices in Utrecht, Netherlands, commissioned by the Dutch Central Government Real Estate Agency and opened in 2018. Photo: The Workplace Network

Post-pandemic, governments around the world are using their offices differently as workforces adapt to remote and flexible working. In the first of a series of exclusive interviews, Global Government Forum speaks to Stéphan Déry, a senior official in the Canadian government who is also president of The Workplace Network, about what governments can learn from each other in the ‘new normal’

This is a time of unprecedented global challenges. From action to support Ukraine after Russia’s invasion to the response to the coronavirus pandemic and the work to cut carbon emissions, many of these challenges are ones that governments cannot face alone. They require multilateral discussions to share best practice, exchange ideas and lessons learned, and to develop collaborative partnerships between governments.

The same is also true of areas of public policy somewhat further from the headlines. Take for example, the seemingly humble government office. Making best use of public sector real estate is something that all governments around the world need to do, and The Workplace Network (TWN) helps government do this.

The network is a global community of senior executives in public sector real estate, and it exists to share knowledge and insight among its eight members: Canada, Estonia, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, the UK and US.

Stephan Déry

Speaking exclusively to Global Government Forum about the work of the network, president Stéphan Déry, who is also the assistant deputy minister of real property services at Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), set out the value of its work.

“Everybody managing a public real estate portfolio is trying to manage it with as much efficiency as possible – and we owe that to our population, because they’re financing our real estate portfolio through their tax and income tax,” he said of the shared challenge. “We work together so we have a clear and better understanding of our challenges, expertise, experience, and the pitfalls of what we’ve tried.”

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

Sharing best practice on the future of the office

The network regularly shares ideas, lessons learned and best practice among its members, and provides information on strategy and approaches to advance the management of public real estate portfolios.

Such discussions, says Déry, greatly helped the development of the Government of Canada’s workplace strategy, in particular by opening his eyes to activity-based workplace models. In this model, rather than every employee having their own desk, offices are designed to have a range of different work settings that help staff be the most efficient depending on what task they are doing at that point in the day.

A 2014 visit to countries in Europe allowed Déry to see how activity-based workplace models worked.

“We didn’t have that in Canada and that brings all the efficiency of the workplace,” he says. “But we saw it being successful, and so we can incorporate that in our future strategy.”

Déry sees the response to coronavirus pandemic as a similar opportunity to share best practice.

Many of the TWN member governments implemented lockdowns or social distancing measures during the pandemic, meaning that occupancy was massively reduced in many government buildings as public servants worked from home. Now, many governments are developing hybrid working arrangements intended to combine the best of the remote working – often liked by employees – and office-based work that can encourage closer collaboration.

As governments grapple with the post-COVID ‘new normal’, every country is facing the same dilemma, says Déry. Indeed the history of TWN shows that governments are often “experiencing pretty much the same challenges at different times”.

While the economic cycles of different countries might not be the same, for example, efficiency demands are made of all government property units sooner or later.

“Some of our challenges are, for me, like a big wheel that goes around,” he says. “We have challenges in public real estate that are similar across around the world – the finite amount of money, costs escalating all the time, and wanting to manage a portfolio in the most efficient way possible – while also giving an employee experience that will attract and retain talent.”

To share insight around post-pandemic working arrangements, Déry convened his peers across the world for a series of podcast interviews to find out how the public sector office was changing and the vision for the future.

Déry says the podcast was developed as a way to help the TWN keep on top of developments.

“I became the president of TWN in November 2019, and then March 2020, the pandemic hit. My first thought was: this is the largest telework pilot ever. From one day to the next, you have potentially 80% to 85% of civil servants who went to work from home – except for those that were providing a frontline service to the citizen.

“So it came from a desire to find out what other people are doing. And through our group conversation, we started to realise that we were looking at addressing our space in the same manner: we were concerned about the health and safety of people coming into the office, while in the middle of COVID we were also thinking, ‘OK what’s the impact long term on the property portfolio.”

The podcast provides a fascinating insight into real time thinking in government and into how government services are delivered, with Déry interviewing officials from, among others, the United States, Netherlands, South Korea and Norway.

Common threads running through the podcast episodes include post-COVID modernisation to adapt to remote working and work to improve the sustainability and accessibility of government offices.

Déry summarises some of the questions raised and answered during the interviews. “How are we making our buildings safe? What do we think is going to be the long-term impact? And what do we think is the opportunity for the future of work? To me, there is a lot of value [in the podcast] – it confirms our thinking here in Canada, but also shares that with the rest of the world that’s interested in public real estate.”

Specific initiatives that caught his attention include the development of an “office in a box” to help get remote workers up and running at home.

“A lot of people are working from home, so how do we equip them? My colleague in the US has developed the concept of an office in a box – ‘you’re working from home, Richard, here’s what you need [and] we’ll set you up’. That’s one I’ve thought about – and even small things like that, to me, could have a big impact on the 260,000 civil servants that work for Canada.”

As Déry says, there are opportunities in even the darkest challenges to have come from the pandemic. “As Winston Churchill said, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’. Through these podcasts we have tried to look at how we got through the crisis, but also what the opportunity is after the crisis and how we can benefit from that and our public administration could benefit from it.”

This is the first 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, and how governments are considering how to improve the energy efficiency and accessibility of their 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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