Why flexible working works for the public sector

A survey of more than 2,500 public sector workers shows the majority believe flexible working practices will be more prevalent across the public sector by 2016.

More than half of all respondents to the survey, carried out by Guardian Professional in association with Vodafone, agree that there will be fewer office buildings, more desk sharing and a higher percentage of nomadic workers in three years’ time.

Less than a quarter of respondents believe that more flexible working would adversely affect team dynamics, or that it would lead to an increased amount of time spent monitoring individual performance – concerns that are often voiced by critics of flexible working arrangements. As one manager put it: “My staff satisfaction has increased with flexible working and productivity is higher.”

Respondents were mainly based in England, and most worked in local government, the NHS, social care services or housing associations. The majority have worked in their present public sector organisation for more than five years. As most types of flexible working are already widely available in the public sector – including part time working, flexible working around core hours, job sharing and working from home – many staff will have experienced it in one form or another. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority (79%) felt it improved staff members work-life balance. One respondent summed this up as the “triple dividend” of from mobile working: it offers “less cost, easier to get information, less stress”.

Slightly fewer (71%) feel that by offering flexible working their organisation is better able to retain key staff, while over half (58%) agreed that it can also help to attract better candidates for vacancies. Respondents were undecided when asked whether flexible working also leads to improved services for citizens, with four in ten agreeing that it did, and 45% neither agreeing or disagreeing.

Opinions on whether or not flexible working reduces absenteeism were fairly neutral, with 42% of those questioned agreeing that absences were less common when flexible working was available, and a similar number neither agreeing or disagreeing. Both results could indicate that some staff have yet to experience the kind of truly effective mobile working that the Public Services Network enables.

Change process

Although fast broadband, videoconferencing and time management software have made flexible working easier than ever before to implement, some private sector employers remain wedded to the old concept of an office-based working environment – as demonstrated by Yahoo’s recent cancellation of flexible working practices for all its employees. But a move toward more flexible working in the public sector could help organisations cut costs while retaining key workers and services.

This might take the form of property rationalisation: more than two-thirds of the respondents to the survey agreed that their organisation will have fewer buildings by 2016, and the ones that are retained will increasingly be shared with other service providers. But to achieve this, local staff need to be able to make decisions on the best use of office space, with one respondent calling for local managers to be given “the power to collaborate and share buildings.”

Although nearly three-quarters of public sector staff currently spend the majority of their time working at a fixed location, there is also a general belief that by 2016 the locations of their remaining offices, or the set-up within them, will have changed significantly.

The overall expectation is that only 45% of staff will spend more than half their time working at a fixed office location. Despite this there is less conviction that there will be a wholesale switch to nomadic working practices. Most staff still expect to have a desk in three years time, but 60% believe they will be sharing it with someone else.

Some respondents expressed concern about the possible implications of hot-desking for certain sections of the public sector, but overall there was strong support for strategic change in relation to working practices, with only 1 respondent in 100 saying they would do their “utmost to retain the status quo”. In fact the majority of public sector organisations appear to have already implemented a change strategy, though few have progressed past the early stages of planning and implementation.

Evaluating technology

Most of the public sector staff who responded to the survey were very positive about the ability of technology to improve efficiency and enable changes to working practices.

However, three-quarters of respondents said their organisation would ‘have to reevaluate its communications infrastructure’ to allow more staff to work away from a fixed location effectively.

The majority of respondents (80%) felt their organisation would also need to overhaul its data security and staff training practices as flexible working became more prevalent. And although there was considerable faith in the transformative power of technology, some people expressed frustration with outdated devices, with one respondent claiming that within their organisation “hours are wasted through bad connections, slow speeds and old equipment that is not fit for purpose.”

Ultimately, the survey results show public sector employees have the appetite for changes to their working practices, as long as these changes are part of a clearly designed and well-articulated strategy. Striking the right balance between remote working and team environments, and making sure that any new policies are designed with front-line workers in mind, seems to be crucial – some people were frustrated that the staff most affected by changes are not always consulted during the planning and testing of new ways of working. As one respondent said of the change process: “Keep it human. People bring change, not ICT.”