Ian Holden, Managing Director for Digital at Civica, discusses what the future of work may look like for the UK’s local government employees
The world of work has been shifting towards a more flexible culture for the past decade. Progression in technology has allowed people to be as efficient when working remotely as when they were in the office. While the rate of change was progressing steadily, we’re now seeing how COVID-19 could permanently shift working patterns as employees may request to retain the benefits of flexible working once restrictions are lifted further. Forecasters have already estimated that one fifth of office space will be reduced post-lockdown in major cost-cutting operations and amid the realisation that virtual working is practical, and sometimes even preferable.
Public sector organisations will have recognised this trend while handling an increase in workload as they roll out new government schemes, and as the economic implications on local businesses and communities continue to evolve. Whilst councils have already begun to embrace agile working practices and have developed digital services to deliver a better, faster and more efficient response, their service delivery will have to be re-evaluated in a post-COVID light for the revised needs of service users and employees.
The status quo for the foreseeable
Councils are already looking to ensure every service is available and intuitively accessible online, influenced by uncertainty as to when social distancing may end. Many are already effectively remote working, but now all will need to have the necessary infrastructure for teams to collaborate and engage with citizens securely from home.
From virtual team meetings to taking online payments, council leaders must ensure the software they’re using for both internal and external communication and engagements is safe and secure, protecting both employee and citizen data. Training for council employees will continue to be scaled up so that they understand and adhere to new or revised council services to carry out a diverse range of tasks virtually or at a distance.
Much like private sector companies, councils will need to look at how they re-design the office and organisational processes to align with government guidance. There will likely be floor markings in council buildings to ensure employees and citizens continue to adhere to distancing rules; appointments will be made shorter to reduce face-to-face contact to 15 minutes at most; and teams will likely work in shift patterns to limit the risk of exposure. However, the big question for council leaders will be whether long-term technological developments can help them push towards a more flexible, working-from-home and serviced-at-home model.
Pivoting to a digital future
The impetus behind digital transformation will be redirected to digital adaptation, as councils rush to provide ‘good enough’ online services quickly and on tight, and potentially shrinking budgets. While this could cause technical debt, a shift towards digital services will save money and provide benefit in the long run. Councils that have already invested in transformation will see considerable returns from this.
So, what does the local government workplace of the future look like? We will no doubt see office space reduced considerably and employees encouraged to work remotely, as councils seek further rent reductions on top of the savings already made. With 68% of British employees saying they are more productive working remotely, it’s also an opportunity to re-evaluate the importance of the office, with an eye on maximising productivity and staff satisfaction.
Nevertheless, an ageing population will mean that while services need to be deliverable online, councils still need to retain human connection and avoid complete automation. Therefore, council staff will still be required to liaise with local citizens whether in-person during an appointment at their local council or on the phone. Soft skills - which are already fundamental to working in local government - will become even more important as staff spend more time engaging with older people, some of whom may be isolated. There will also be a focus on stepping up efforts to educate elderly and vulnerable groups, as well as scaling up digital inclusion programmes in rural areas to ensure all citizens are able to access at least the most basic government services online.
Digital skills and tools will be crucial
Efficient management of data will be vital in aiding better workforce decision making through more effective analysis and improved transparency between leaders and employees. By using a cloud-based people system, councils will better understand their workers. This will enable improved workforce engagement, collaboration and ultimately enhance the employee experience to reduce staff churn and drive productivity. Better connected employees lead to a happier and more satisfied workforce and enable more efficient delivery of public services – an absolute necessity during these turbulent times.
Council leaders should also look to other public sector organisations to see how they’re adapting to the ‘new normal.’ For example, Southern Health & Social Care Trust has developed a communications app called Connect to distribute vital information to employees, some of whom do not always have access to corporate systems. Examples like this show how technology can help unite disparate teams and enable joined-up communications – particularly important for many local government organisations battling against a ‘siloed mentality’.
Leaders will also place increased value on having an agile workforce with a diverse skillset who can adapt in times of uncertainty. This presents a huge opportunity for local government leaders to embed more innovative digital working practices for the long term. Ensuring council leaders have access to dependable, flexible and scalable technology will be central to their operations for the next few months, even years, of potential economic uncertainty. Collaboration in a decentralised workspace continues to grow in importance, with software and services designed to maximise discussion and prevent silos.
Change will not happen overnight but COVID-19 has certainly highlighted the importance of technology in connecting local and global communities. Using digital tools to collaborate and partner across local government, suppliers, voluntary organisations and the community has proved an effective model in delivering services to those with the greatest need in times of crisis. The challenge for us all is to maintain the digital progress we have made during this crisis and to take it one step further by moving all services online via interoperable cloud-based systems. This will enable employees and citizens to engage and communicate efficiently and securely wherever and whenever it suits.