Around the country, government departments are currently operating with an organisational structure and workforce model that no one has planned. It is a combination of urgent priorities, operational necessities and the constraints of technology, and in many ways it has coped well.
The move to virtual working has been surprisingly effective and has enabled flexibility both in people’s daily schedules and also enabling staff to work between departments to respond to needs.
As the weeks stretch into months and the post-pandemic new reality of work unfolds, governments need to plan the shape of their future workforces. Temporary fixes have served their purpose but, without a clear vision, civil service leaders risk things falling back to how they were before. COVID-19 has lifted much of the inertia around challenging the what, how, when and where people work, and evolving to the new reality could accelerate workforces of the future.
Leaders have an opportunity to articulate the future shape of their workforce and then develop them, rather than make incremental changes from their current organisation charts. While a grand plan may seem like a luxury at present, each easing of a restriction risks a step backwards and a barrier to future development.
While designing the workforce of the future may seem like a complex task, requiring the ability to visualise and analyse future scenarios, there are six key factors that leaders should consider throughout the recovery phase to avoid taking backwards steps:
The skills required to manage teams have changed and people leaders need to adapt to running and supporting diverse teams remotely. This will often entail greater trust as teams will not be working in the same location as frequently. In response, leadership cannot be on hold while working remotely and decisions should not be put off ‘until we’re back in the office’ as this risks paralysing team productivity for months.
The reshaped workforce is likely to involve a radically different set of capabilities. Governments have typically underinvested in many of the skills it requires. These include engineers, Artificial Intelligence developers, data scientists and effective project managers, which has left government lagging behind private sector capabilities. There is no single route to developing those capabilities, but there are options:
Remote working means that where people work is less relevant. This provides a great opportunity to increase the diversity of people working in government and contributing to policy. While supportive technologies or assistance may be required for some, governments have the opportunity to employ people and perspectives from outside the traditional physical centres of government.
Reducing the importance of physical location also offers cost savings that will be critical in addressing government debt. A workforce shaped for the future may well enable roles to be done from areas with lower rents. Office space can then be rented out or sold and governments can provide jobs in regions that require support while reducing pressure in large cities.
When working remotely, staff have more time in their day because they are not commuting or travelling for work. This is offset by needing to fit work arrangements around family and other commitments and the shape of work should maintain that flexibility. COVID-19 has challenged how often employees are required to be in the office. Enabling work to fit around their personal preferences and commitments is likely to result in greater productivity as well as improved emotional wellbeing.
In the short term, during the recovery phase, this will be a necessity as traditional workday routines cause congestion on public transport, and make physical distancing challenging in office foyers and elevators. Longer term, there is little need to return to it for many roles where shifts, flexible working and a hybrid of remote and office working will be better for staff. In some cases, staff may opt for a shorter working week, which they had not considered before, reducing costs as well as improving their wellbeing.
The role of leaders as role models should not be underestimated. If leaders return to the office, staff will follow suit seeing it as what is expected of them. This should be carefully managed to ensure that it does not risk ignoring health guidance and that people are not excluded. In particular, leaders should be sensitive to not be disadvantaging people with protected characteristics through remote working or through a phased return to the office. Seeking input from staff on their preferences will be important.
The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the emotional state and mental health of staff should not be underestimated. In the short term, regular communications, team check-ins, adapting work around other elements of life and addressing issues that arise are key safeguards to supporting wellbeing. Policies regarding compassionate leave, mental health support and time off may need to be flexed to provide people with the support they need.
When moving into the post-pandemic new reality, communication will be extremely important as staff may be very sensitive to change and clarity can be critical, particularly if delivered remotely. Until a vaccine is found, precautions and measures to keep people healthy and respond to potential infections will likely become a normal part of work and workplaces may need to be designed around them. This may mean fewer people in offices, isolation spaces and protective and testing equipment and procedures being made available.
In summary, the future of work and the workforce is a complex and multi-faceted issue but one that civil service leaders need to be proactive about. Developing a vision for the shape of the future workforce enables consistent steps forward over time and a balance of looking after people while looking to the future.