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

By on 14/03/2022 | Updated on 14/03/2022
A worker joining a video call

The People in Government Lab’s Sally Leach summarises research and experts’ views on the future of work in public organisations, exploring employees’ appetite for hybrid working post-COVID, telework best practice, and the need to rebuild social capital

Late last year, the People in Government Lab and the University of Chile joined together to host a seminar on the future of remote work in public organisations. It brought together academics and public sector leaders to share research and experiences of remote working gained during the COVID-19 pandemic, and to reflect on their hopes and challenges for these new working arrangements going forward.

Professor Ngaire Woods, dean of the Blavatnik School of Government, opened the seminar by acknowledging that following the life-saving actions of public servants throughout the pandemic, there can be no doubt whatsoever that having an effective public service is critical and that the work of public servants truly matters. However, she warned that there are several challenges that public organisations now face, not least those related to new working arrangements and economic conditions brought about by the pandemic. Remote work is too transactional and effort is needed to rebuild the social capital of working and having fun together, she said. And in addition, the Great Resignation – an ongoing trend for large numbers of employees to resign from their jobs– has made attracting and retaining talent more crucial than ever.

Alejandro Weber, former undersecretary of finance for the Government of Chile, agreed. Governments must modernise to excel at remote working, in order to offer conditions that are as attractive to employees as the private sector, if not more so, he argued. This is particularly important as governments embark on their digital transformation journeys. Weber emphasised that the modernisation of the state is no longer an option, but an urgent necessity to offer better public services for which demand and expectations are growing. In Chile, over 30 million people now have a digital identity, allowing access to over 500 public services, and 74% of government services are available online. The extent of this digitalisation, combined with the adjustment to remote work in the public service, means that proper regulation is now an urgent priority, Weber said.

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

Setting boundaries, minimising distractions, and enabling interaction: how to improve remote working wellbeing

In the first panel of the seminar, Margarita Gómez, executive director at the People in Government Lab (PeopleGov Lab) and her colleague Javier Fuenzalida, a postdoctoral research fellow, shared some key learnings from their research into teleworking during the pandemic. In August and September 2021, the PeopleGov Lab ran a research pilot in the UK, Chile, and Brazil. It focused on understanding the challenges, benefits, and public sector employees’ preferences around remote work, as well as the effectiveness of behavioural-informed interventions in increasing employees’ productivity and wellbeing. The study was carried out in collaboration with government HR and people and innovation units and had over 1,700 participants.

One of the most prominent findings from the study was a very high preference among public sector employees for keeping a hybrid work model (defined as working from home more than three days per week), particularly in the UK and Brazil. It found that productivity either increased or remained stable in all three countries during the pandemic but that working from home presented challenges including a lack of boundaries, distractions, and lack of human interaction and feeling disconnected. Wellbeing was a key issue with participants reporting high levels of perceived stress. However, the study also found that the experience of remote working public sector employees could also be improved through small managerial changes, such as better technology and practices for team meetings.

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

Drawing conclusions from the findings, Gómez emphasised the need for a different style of leadership – one that allows autonomy, places confidence in employees, and provides a high level of appreciation for their work. Such leadership will require new strategies for measuring productivity and performance, she said. Moreover, organisational support is key in developing effective remote working: establishing clear rules between work and leisure time; developing strategies to improve time management and reduce distractions; and developing tools to promote human interaction and social capital. Gómez highlighted that special care is needed for new employees, especially regarding the social aspects of working life, and recommended that organisations develop specific policies for newcomers in the context of remote work.

Later in the session, Fuenzalida spoke about best practice based on the PeopleGov Lab’s teleworking manual for public organisations. Most organisations were not sufficiently prepared for remote work at the start of the pandemic, he said. He emphasised that the success of telework is tied closely to the nature of the organisation and it is therefore essential to tailor the teleworking structure to individual organisational needs, giving careful consideration to the main goals of future working practices and linking these aims to the public body’s characteristics. Fuenzalida strongly advised having a person, or even a committee, responsible for managing telework, and that telework initiatives where possible should be implemented through pilot programmes, slowly and with regular assessment. Remote working does not only affect HR management, but every aspect of an organisation and so it is crucial to approach it both systematically and in partnership with employees, incorporating their thoughts and experiences into policies, he said.  

As PeopleGov Lab’s research shows, there is appetite among public sector employees for an ongoing hybrid working model but issues such as people feeling disconnected from colleagues must be overcome if teams are to continue to be productive long-term. The good news is that small changes to organisational policy and leadership style can make a big difference. Organisations that consult staff and iterate as they work towards embedding a flexible working approach are the ones likely to produce better outcomes for staff and public services alike.

Click here to watch the seminar, and look out for the second part of Sally Leach’s account of the People in Government Lab’s seminar on The Future of Work next week.

About the People in Government Lab

The People in Government Lab is a global, interdisciplinary research centre, within the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government.

It focuses on people and performance management and aims to improve the motivation, effectiveness, and responsiveness of people working in government, by creating and spreading the evidence base for a better government workforce.

About Sally Leach

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