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What does work life look like after COVID? Civil Service leaders share their top priorities

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As the UK slowly emerges from COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, Civil Service leaders are facing an array of challenges and questions as they shape the ways of working for the teams they lead.

But what are their priorities, what can they learn from experiences in other nations and how can they connect with each other as they step into this new environment?

They were the questions that were front of mind at a roundtable seminar hosted on 30 March by Nous Group. The seminar was the first in our Nous Group Breakfast Seminar Series, “Working effectively post-COVID-19 constraints”, which creates space for UK civil servants to discuss how they can retain the best of the working-from-home experience while developing the culture and working practices needed for the future.

As a Principal in our London office I was honoured to facilitate the discussion, which included about 20 Civil Service CEOs and Directors of Transformation, representing 14 departments and agencies that collectively employ more than 115,000 people.

To frame our discussion, we heard from Melbourne-based Nous Principal Penelope Cottrill about the experience in Australia, which is about six months ahead of the UK in its emergence from lockdown restrictions.

Penelope explained that office occupancy has stayed significantly down where the lockdowns were the strictest and where there is a commuter culture – occupancy in lightly-impacted Brisbane is down only 24 per cent on pre-COVID levels, while more severely-hit Melbourne is down 63 per cent.

She said the proportion of people working from home at least part of the time had gone from 24 per cent pre-COVID to 41 per cent in February this year, with women more likely than men to want to increase work from home. Penelope cited an internal survey of staff at one organisation that revealed that more than 8 out of 10 staff want to continue working remotely if given the opportunity.

Following the briefing on the situation in Australia, UK Civil Service participants in the roundtable engaged in a discussion under Chatham House rules. Here we present the key findings so that other leaders can learn from the discussion.

Civil Service leaders have three priorities for post-COVID-19 work

Civil Service organisations are at different stages in the journey to post-pandemic working arrangements. This reflects varying levels of experience with remote working pre-COVID-19, the level of agility possible in organisations of radically different sizes and complexity, and the ongoing need to respond to government priorities.

Despite these differences, the discussion highlighted three common things to which Civil Service leaders are paying attention.

1. Leaders want to capitalise on new ways of working, drawing on talent from across the UK.

In response to the pandemic leaders have supported their employees to adapt to remote work and establish new online service models. Many leaders plan to transition to two or three days a week working from home, in line with employee preferences and to reduce the size of their estate, with time in the office prioritised for collaboration and training. But appetite for remote work varies, with some smaller organisations aiming for three or four days a week working from home.

Remote working has raised the prospect of drawing on talent from across the UK, which could help support the government’s levelling-up agenda. However, if hybrid working becomes the new normal, this risks isolating employees who cannot reasonably commute to an office at least part of the week.

There are concerns that opportunities for hybrid working will be constrained by political pressure on the Civil Service to get employees back into the office to help revive the London economy.

Comments from roundtable participants included:

  • “We want to make sure we’re building back with ambition.”
  • “We need to make sure we don’t end up with orphaned talent cut off from the rest of the organisation.”

2. Sustainability and fairness for employees and the public will underpin post-COVID-19 planning.

Leaders recognise that working-from-home arrangements have not worked for everyone, so the ability to work remotely, access to appropriate workspace, and overall employee wellbeing will be areas of ongoing focus.

Leaders are particularly concerned about new starters who do not have strong organisational networks to draw on, and frontline leaders who face the prospect of managing hybrid face-to-face and remote teams. At the same time, leaders want to maintain the positive aspects of Teams/Zoom as an equaliser for people with different abilities and flexible workers. Getting these dynamics right will be crucial to retain talent, maintain performance and safeguard organisational culture.

Some leaders challenged the long-term suitability of online delivery models for some government services, especially where service users may require emotional support, which highlights the potential limits of remote working.

Comments from roundtable participants included:

  • “We’ll be asking more of our frontline managers than we ever have before.”
  • “We have a large proportion of our staff who are young and either still live at home with family or live in shared accommodation – many are literally working on their beds.”

3. A framework for hybrid working – with supporting tools and guidance – will be essential for decision-making and optimising future working practices.

To enable future ways of working, organisations must balance choice and flexibility for individuals on one hand with business and ministerial needs on the other. Key questions, such as who works where and in which circumstances, could be supported through a framework for decision-making. This would consider which decisions should be made by individuals, managers, offices or organisation leads, and whether they should be prescriptive or based on principles. The organisation’s role could then flex between decision-maker and enabler.

Leaders also see the need for practical tools and guidance to optimise hybrid working arrangements as UK restrictions loosen – for example, toolkits to support managers lead hybrid teams and communications to reassure staff and manage expectations. These frameworks will reduce the burden on frontline leaders, who will need guidance to support their decisions on their team’s working practices. Some leaders are intentionally using the next six to nine months as a ‘test and learn’ period to iterate what works for their organisation.

Comments from roundtable participants included:

  • “Individual preferences and ways of working are really important but need to be set within the overall objectives of the team.”

Priorities will vary across organisations

We expect these three priorities will be shared by many Civil Service leaders, but others may find different priorities arise in their organisation.

Wherever you choose to put your efforts in preparing for life after COVID-19, it can be helpful to learn from experiences elsewhere, swap notes with other Civil Service leaders and work with a trusted partner who can help you develop plans and turn them into action.

Get in touch to discuss how Nous can help your organisation navigate the loosening of COVID-19 constraints.

Connect with Peter Horne on LinkedIn.

Prepared with input from Daniel Benwell and Penelope Cottrill.