How the government should take advantage of Smart Working

Government organisations are some of the largest employers in any country and many of them are starting to move towards Smart Working. Some have already progressed quite far on the journey: for instance, in the United States the federal government has promoted both teleworking and workplace flexibility for many years. Telecommuting centres were set up around Washington as long ago as the 1990s to relieve the long commute experienced by many federal workers.

The UK Government is going down a different route in implementing Smart Working. The need to reform working practices and deliver more with reduced resources while also delivering benefits for civil servants is embedded in

Government’s Civil Service Reform Plan. An integrated approach combining changes to property technology, processes, workstyles and culture comes under a programme called The Way We Work (or TW3), which is managed by part of the Cabinet Office.

Many departments and agencies have reduced the number of offices they occupy and introduced desk-sharing and activity-based work settings. Typically the sharing ratio is 8 desks per 10 people, though this varies between departments and teams. Some organisations like Ofsted, the education inspectorate, have been primarily home-based for many years – all the inspectors and most support staff and managers work from home.

All report significant property savings. This is especially so with Birmingham, the largest local authority in Europe, which has reduced its administrative estate from 55 buildings to 8, while enabling 9,000 people to work from 6,500 workstations. The property rationalisation and introduction of Agile Working is reducing running costs from £19m per year to £11m, and delivering net savings of £100 million over the life of the project.

There is still much work to do – it is very much a multi-speed process. Even within a single organisation, different parts move at different speed.  In many ways, government and other public sector organisations share the same issues as other large employers when it comes to implementing more agile and flexible ways of working. However, the requirements and the culture of public service mean there are distinct public sector considerations involved. So how should the Government take advantage of Smart Working?

Liberate employees to be more effective

The changes in the nature of work mean that employees can be untethered from offices, and spend more time directly interacting with citizens and with partners.

The essential ingredients for this are to:

– Invest in equipping employees with the means to be more efficient and effective

– Reduce excess office space, reducing the focus on desk work in favour of spaces for collaboration and other activity-based settings

– Eliminate paper and the unwieldy processes associated with it

– Develop trust-based working relationships, based on managing by results

– Enable employees to have more initiative and autonomy, taking responsibility for organising their own work

– Aim to eliminate routine physical meetings, replacing them with online processes and online collaboration – saving physical face-to-face meetings for decision-making, innovation and team-building

– Retrain process workers as front-line workers as their roles shrink.

Bring elected members into the 21st century

While it is attractive to some to be anchored to the physical location of government, the emphasis on physical co-location creates many inefficiencies. Legislators who spend all their time in the capital away from their constituencies no longer need to do so.

The changing nature of work means that:

– Interaction with civil servants need not be face to face – elected representatives should rethink their roles as being a part of various overlapping virtual teams, according to their responsibilities

– Committee work and reviewing or preparing legislation and regulatory decisions should by default take part through modern conferencing and collaboration techniques, enabling virtual and hybrid virtual/physical meetings

– Travel for meetings can be radically reduced, and the need for second homes largely eliminated, leading to savings on expenses and improved work-life balance for legislators

– Elected representatives should be able to take part in votes and debates from remote locations as a matter of course

– The culture and etiquette of meetings and debates should provide equality for remote participants

– Briefings, policy development and communications with officials should become paperless. We would expect such an approach to produce a more inclusive environment for government, leading to more women and people from minorities seeking to be involved.

A new approach to reducing the costs of government

Government bodies and other public sector organisations should prioritise Smart Working in order to use resources more efficiently and effectively – in preference to reactive cuts to services and other traditional cost-cutting measures such as relocation and restructuring. Changes of location and organisational structure will have little impact if it means doing things in the old way, only in new places and with new job titles.

The increasingly f nature of work should mean that many government employees can work from anywhere. This means a new approach to relocation that focuses on work coming to people where they live, rather than moving whole departments to lower cost regions and uprooting employees – or more probably losing them from the organisation.

Over time a new approach to having employees working from anywhere means that the recruitment pool can be widened. Offices can be reduced in size, functioning primarily as meeting spaces for a geographically distributed workforce.

It also means reducing the resource base of government. Most governments have accumulated vast amounts of real estate, much more than is actually needed in the new world of work. Options for this are:

– Selling it where possible

– Getting out of expensive leases and properties that are no longer fit for purpose

– Where sale is not possible, repurposing buildings for homes or economic development purposes, including workhubs – where appropriate by community asset transfer

– Remodelling property and sharing it with other public sector agencies, on Smart Working principles.

All of these have impacts beyond the workplace, and beyond the world of work. The next question is to see how the Government as policy-maker can work to maximise the benefits that potentially stem from the future of work.

If you want to know more about the topic, download the full report here.