Remote but together: the future of work in the civil service

By on 05/05/2021 | Updated on 05/05/2021
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Requiring civil servants to work from home, the pandemic is set to boost existing moves to disperse officials away from expensive Whitehall property. But the relocation and Levelling Up agendas will themselves have to adapt around the unique pressures of COVID-19

For the past few years, the government’s estate and workplace planning strategy has involved moving civil servants out of central London to a new set of ‘regional hubs’, cutting office costs and supporting more flexible, cross-departmental working practices. And under this administration, the desire to ‘Level Up’ areas outside London and the South-East has given the agenda an extra boost – with departments instructed to move 22,000 jobs out to the regions by 2030.

The Government Property Agency (GPA) has so far opened four hubs, with 13 more already in the planning and development stage. Located near major transport links, these workplaces are designed to facilitate cross-departmental collaboration – offering flexible workstations, modern IT and audio-visual tools, plus meeting and workshop areas that can be reconfigured as requirements change. Speaking at a Global Government Forum webinar in March, GPA chief executive Steven Boyd explained that the hubs are intended to be “porous” – with other education and community organisations invited to make use of the premises.

But the hubs network was conceived well before the coronavirus pandemic drove most of the UK’s 400,000 civil servants home to work remotely. For the last year, both Whitehall and the new hubs have been largely deserted as employees adapted to working from their kitchen tables. And the findings of the Civil Service Remote Working Survey 2021, conducted earlier this year by GGF and Dell Technologies, suggest that civil service organisations are unlikely to revert fully to office-based working after the pandemic.

Of the 906 civil servants who responded to the survey, 95% said they could carry out all or most of their role remotely, and 82% said they would like to work from home more often in the future. With staff at all grades and across the professions enjoying the time savings and flexibility that comes with home working, a commitment to flexible working is likely to become important to employers’ recruitment and retention policies. But how exactly are these changes likely to affect policies and practices across the civil service – and what are the implications for the hubs strategy?

The future is hybrid

The GPA has surveyed over 26,000 civil servants who have been working from home over the course of the pandemic, says Boyd, building up a picture of the sort of working environment they want and expect post-Covid. The outcome is likely to be a hybrid model, where people split their working time between home and office.

“To support that, we need to make sure it’s not just the workplaces that are designed properly, but also that we have the right technology and help departments understand the behaviours and leadership that are required to make the most of the new arrangement,” says Boyd.

Tariq Hussain, a senior director for UK public sector at Dell Technologies, says the great positive that can be drawn from the mass remote working experiment is that civil servants have wholeheartedly embraced remote working, despite an historic reluctance on the part of many to abandon their Westminster base. “What we didn’t think was possible has proved to be absolutely achievable,” he says.

However, he adds that parts of the corporate sector are some way ahead of the public sector in terms of embedding flexible working. Hussain expects the civil service to follow a similar learning curve to that of Dell when the business moved its sales force to remote working about ten years ago.

“We found that the biggest challenge wasn’t technical – it was cultural,” Hussain says. “The teething problems were around collaboration: how do you do workshops, whiteboard sessions, training, teamworking?

“Even when we can all see one another, online brainstorming sessions simply aren’t as impactful and productive as physical ones. Potential distractions are greater, focus and engagement are lower, and it’s just not as natural.”

At Dell, the offices evolved into workshop areas: fluid, creative hubs that people could drop into for meetings, workshops or training. People also gravitated back to the office when they wanted to socialize. “Once staff were able to combine doing the more administrative tasks from home with getting together in a physical space for the things that required team working and collaboration, productivity improved again,” he says.

Reshaping the hubs

So even if in future most civil servants work from home for much of the time, government will still need spaces for collaboration, socialising and relationship-building. The cross-departmental, flexible hubs should meet this need. And if higher rates of home-working mean that employers need less desk space in the emerging hubs network than they’d planned, that only increases the hubs’ effective capacity – giving civil service bodies more options as they look to move staff out of the South-East.

As Boyd explains, the GPA is sticking with its original workplace design guide for the hubs, but has updated it in the wake of the pandemic. “The solution we chose was always a modular one, so you could swap out banks of desks with an area for project space or breakout space,” he says. “Trying to encourage the maximum amount of collaboration space, before Covid we often struggled with persuading departments that that was a good idea. Very often people were looking for banks of desks, despite our best advice; but we’re now finding that conversation has changed completely.

“We’re having a much better discussion about how best to support productivity, with the best arrangements for people and a recognition that offices exist for a reason – to support collaboration, creativity, community and caring.”

Boyd adds that the GPA is now thinking hard about the HR policies and technologies that can best support hybrid working, such as protocols for running meetings where some attendees are in person and others are remote.

Working remotely, connected closely

Dell has already wrestled with many of these challenges, comments Hussain: the company had, for example, to find ways to build trust within fluid, dispersed teams, and to ensure that people’s work/life balance isn’t adversely affected by increased home-working.

“One thing we learned is that you can never have too much communication from the centre,” he says. “It’s so important that remote workers feel that they are part of the team and connected to the organisation, so they need constant communication from their head office or department.”

He also highlights the danger that some employees can find it hard to switch off – both literally and metaphorically ­– and end up working much longer hours at home than they would normally do in the office. This can lead to mental and physical health setbacks, higher stress levels and burnout.

“Managers must be cognizant of this risk, and find ways to manage it,” he says. “One thing I’ve started doing in my regular one-to-ones with my team members is for both of us to don earphones and get away from our computers. We walk and talk. It’s so easy to sit at your desk or kitchen table from 8am, and suddenly find the day has gone and you’ve barely moved. People need to force themselves to get out, because we’ve been doing this for a year now and we’ve all formed these new habits, some of which are not very healthy.

“We don’t yet know the full consequences, mental and physical, of this year-long experiment, but if widespread remote working is going to continue into the future – and these survey results suggest that it is – then it is really important that we all create healthy habits to complement it.”

Hussain concludes that the pandemic has pushed working patterns in the direction required to make a success of both the hubs strategy, and the drive to move staff jobs out of the South-East. If the mainstreaming of remote working helps to shift decision-making out of Whitehall offices into the digital world, that further loosens the ties that bind people to the office – creating a virtuous circle. And the hubs network, built to provide ongoing teamworking and occasional desk spaces, is better suited than government’s ageing Whitehall estate to widespread hybrid working.

The challenge now is to “bake in” this progress and permanently shift mindsets, says Hussain. If people can be persuaded that their physical location does not affect the quality of their connections or influence, the results could be very positive – both for the quality of policymaking, and also for civil servants themselves.

“If we get it right, then productivity will increase, people’s mental health and wellbeing will improve, and the balance between work and family life could be much more in kilter,” he concludes. “We need to keep monitoring and measuring progress, adjusting our practices accordingly, and making sure that both sides are getting what they need.”

The full survey – including detailed findings attained by segmenting responses – is available via GGF’s website. GGF and Dell Technologies will be hosting a webinar on 13 May, where Hussain will explain the findings in detail: you can sign up via our event page.

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