Remote working in the UK civil service: from emergency response to business as usual

By on 21/06/2021 | Updated on 22/06/2021
Image by Anrita1705 from Pixabay

The Covid-19 pandemic precipitated a huge change in working practices across the civil service, with nearly 90% of the 430,000 staff dispatched to their homes for months on end. At a recent webinar, experts from the Government Property Agency and Dell discussed what this mass remote working experiment might mean for the future of the civil service workplace

“In many ways, fixing the workplace and fixing the technology is easy. It costs money, but it’s relatively easy,” said Dominic Brankin, director of workplace services at the UK Cabinet Office’s Government Property Agency. “Supporting a change in behaviour and thinking and belief is much harder, and I think a longer road for us to travel.”

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

Brankin was outlining what he sees as the key challenge facing leaders in the UK civil service as they contemplate what working practices might look like in a post-pandemic world. He was taking part in a GGF webinar that considered the findings of the recent Civil Service Remote Working Survey, supported by Dell Technologies. This research showed that although just 6% of the 900+ respondents worked from home all the time before the pandemic, 73% found that they were able to carry out their full role away from the office, and a further 22% could do most of their job remotely. Furthermore, 82% said they wanted to work from home more frequently in the future.

Brankin expects that for most people, a hybrid arrangement – taking in the workplace, the home, and potentially a third space where they connect with customers or other stakeholders – is the most likely outcome.

The experience of the pandemic demonstrates beyond doubt that there are many benefits to be gleaned from a more flexible model, both for employees and organisations. Almost three in five of all survey respondents said they are more productive working from home, and 72% agreed that their wellbeing would be greatly improved if they were able to continue doing so.

There are also potential benefits for the government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda, which includes efforts to disperse civil servants more evenly across the UK, rather than having them concentrated in Whitehall. 

Providing the tools

But making a success of hybrid working on a more permanent basis is not without its challenges. Tariq Hussain, senior director for UK public sector at Dell Technologies, commented that while the overnight shift to mass homeworking accelerated digital transformation programmes across the civil service and fast-tracked the rollout of online services, there are barriers to overcome if this progress is to be baked in to future working processes and activities.

Tariq Hussain, Senior Director, UK Public Sector, Dell Technologies

In terms of getting the right technology into people’s hands to support off-site working, Hussain said the pandemic has highlighted the need for better collaboration between government, civic society and the corporate sector. He recalled how when schools first closed and all learning moved online, the Department for Education (DfE) planned to buy and distribute 1.4 million laptops to children that needed them. But in the rush to procure quickly and at the lowest price, in many cases the product put forward may not have been necessarily suitable for the education market.

By working together with Dell Technologies and other partners, the DfE was able to establish a supply chain specifically for the programme which resulted in a much more robust and effective product. “Through that open dialogue we were able to create the right solution,” he said.

However, logistical challenges remain with regards to technology.  Pent-up global demand for equipment is creating component shortages which could impact on organisations’ ability to ensure their staff have the most up-to-date hardware and software.

“We need to understand how we get people access to devices,” Hussain said. “We had a great conversation with the Department for Work and Pensions on Monday. They’re looking at taking on another 20,000 staff…but logistically, how do we get 20,000 units and kit, peripherals, images, out to 20,000 different addresses? Are all staff connected to the internet? Have they got the right bandwidth? Do they have the skills and motivation?”

Staying safe

He also warned that civil servants’ confidence around device and information security – 97% of survey respondents had high or moderate confidence in the security of the devices they were given to work from home – may be misplaced. With five times as many devices in circulation across the workforce as before the pandemic, there are “five times more opportunities for threat actors to actively go after our staff,” Hussain warned.

“That threat is real – ransomware attacks are happening everywhere. And historically, security has been a nice-to-have.”

He insisted that security needs to be a higher priority. “Over the last few years, where budgets are constrained, whether in local government or parts of the NHS, they are they ones that are being targeted. And it’s because they don’t have the latest software. That software isn’t going to solve everything, but it’s a good start. Because where we restrict on budgets, we open up the doors to threat actors.”

Brankin added that security considerations go beyond technology; civil servants must not become complacent about the information management risk of working in a home environment with other people around.

“The risk assessment is the same but the environment has changed and there are perhaps a broader set of issues to think about. It’s every bit as much about thinking about what you’re doing on a train, to thinking about what you’re doing at home – who can see your screen and what you’re working on…whether Alexa is in the background and being activated by something that’s happening on a Zoom call.”

At Dell, where remote working has been commonplace for the last decade, every employee must undertake mandatory information security training every quarter.

Adapting to a hybrid world

Hussain also called on his experience at Dell to answer questions from the online audience about some of the cultural aspects of making hybrid working sustainable. Leaders and managers need to think hard about the practicalities of recruiting staff, carrying out inductions and ongoing talent development, and optimising collaboration in a hybrid environment.

He said Dell found that when its sales team first shifted to remote working, productivity rose sharply. But this needs to be carefully monitored by line managers in order to avoid burnout.

“The real unknown so far is what impact this had has on civil servants’ wellbeing,” Hussain said. “We’ve got to be cognisant of making sure that breaks are taken and that people know it’s okay to take time out away from their screen.”  Hussain does regular ‘walk and talk’ meetings with his team members, where they both don earphones and go for a walk while they chat, “because that Zoom fatigue thing is very real”.

Another HR-related issue is ensuring that remote staff have the right equipment to work effectively at home – especially younger staff who may be flat-sharing.

Brankin said the requirement to make reasonable adjustments for employees’ needs applies just as much to home working as office working; and if people are working in a hybrid arrangement, they can expect those adjustments to be made in both workplaces.

He added that the last year has underlined the importance of understanding individual experiences of remote working. Managers must not forget about those colleagues that cannot work from home because the nature of their role requires them to be on-site, or those for whom the remote working experience was not a positive one.

Recalling to research carried out by his agency, he said: “Whilst just over two-thirds told us that they felt connected to their colleagues, that leaves a significant number for whom it was more of a challenge. Understanding that experience and what’s driving it is crucial.”

The limits of flexibility

Another important consideration is the extent to which individual choice can dictate working arrangements. Who determines how much flexibility is allowed? Is it the individual, the manager, or the organisation?

Brankin said all decisions on the extent of personal choice by employees must be made in the context of the imperatives of the business and the activity required to deliver ministers’ priorities. That will be different between departments and within departments, and will evolve as ministerial priorities change.

Managers shouldn’t hesitate to require teams to physically get together regularly if they feel it will benefit the business, Brankin added. Finding ways to promote and support team working and collaboration among remote or hybrid teams was a key challenge identified by the survey.

Hussain said Dell tackled this by reconfiguring its offices as drop-in, collaborative, workshop-style spaces that encouraged team working – a strategy that is also now being pursued by the GPA’s hubs network.

Hussain stressed the importance of maintaining some level of physical connection in an environment where many people are remote or working in a hybrid way. Before the pandemic, his hybrid-working team would get together every three months for an intensive collaboration session over two days and one night.

Brankin agreed that personal connection is vital. In response to a question about whether greater flexibility in working arrangements might mean that civil servants could live and work from overseas, he said: “Organisations aren’t just a random collection of individuals, but people who come together to build as teams to deliver outcomes. And that connection and sense of community does mitigate against a sense of a complete location free-for-all.”

He added that a big driver for the civil service relocations programme is to strengthen the connection of the policymaking function to places outside London, relating it to a broader range of people and places.

“It’s hard to see how you can do that without being there,” he said. Allowing more remote working “is undeniably a huge opportunity for us to tackle things like skills shortages. But breaking those bonds of connection completely, personally, fills me with horror.”

Retaining proximity, remotely

Some of those watching the webinar were concerned about the emergence of a two-tier system, where people who spend more time in the office are given better work and more opportunities than those who spend more time at home. This could be a particular risk if senior managers gravitate back to the office. So how can the civil service ensure senior buy-in to support hybrid working?

Hussain said he thought the proliferation of video meetings means that people’s activities and output have become much more visible to managers, wherever they are working from; this should help to mitigate the risk of a two-tier structure developing, he commented. Brankin added that many people have told him they’ve never felt more included in their team’s activities, because participation in meetings is no longer limited by the size of meeting rooms. Video-calling also means that people are often “bringing more of themselves to work,” he added, and this has often allowed people to get to know their colleagues better.

But both panellists conceded that the actions of leaders and managers will be critical in creating the sort of culture that accepts and supports more flexible working. At Dell, recalled Hussain, managers were initially suspicious that people working from home might be shirking, though they soon saw that productivity rose as people’s work/life balance improved. “But that cultural shift took a while and it had to come from the top down,” he said.

Brankin added that plenty of senior leaders have also enjoyed the opportunity to work from home; he expected that some of the changed working practices adopted during the pandemic will stick. As to what extent – that, he said, will vary with the needs of organisations and the preferences of ministers.

Both Hussain and Brankin were agreed on the importance of training for line managers in how to support hybrid teams. The GPA has just launched a playbook to help managers navigate the return to offices over the coming weeks and months: this contains tools to help set expectations for both the organisation and the individual, and to facilitate conversations about sustaining more flexible ways of working into the future.

Both panelists also emphasised the importance of maintaining some personal contact among teams. “We are human beings by nature; we want to spend time together and to see faces and the whites of people’s eyes,” concluded Hussain. “We’ve got to be very cognisant of that.”

This Dell Technologies webinar was held on 13 May; you can watch the video on our event page, or below. And you can access the full survey report via GGF’s news coverage.

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