The rise of the remote workforce has begun. Organizations that can offer modifications to meet employee, citizen, and customer needs are moving to virtual work. This includes all levels of government in Canada, which seek to accommodate multiple worker types in the new reality by offering "hybrid" ways of working.
Workplace transformations are taking shape throughout the public sector. The Department of National Defence (DND), for example, asked much of its workforce to work remotely at the onset of the pandemic1, and Transport Canada was among the first Canadian Federal Departments to discuss the possibility of making remote work arrangements a longer-term alternative beyond the pandemic for staff whose nature of work permits them to work remotely2.
Although knowledge workers across the country have been able to transition to work-from-home offices, operational teams must work all or partially in their main work location. As such, they have required enhanced safety protocols and adapted models of work. The result is a nationwide workforce of full or partially remote employees working in collaboration with front-line and essential workers, all of which have varying needs and challenges that demand equal attention.
A test of leadership
Managing a modern workforce requires more than just weekly teleconferences. It requires investments in the plans, processes, and resources to support staff's sociocultural and environmental needs, as well as a focus on employee health and wellbeing. It's about finding innovative ways to promote team spirit and corporate culture, exploring new approaches to performance management and measurement, and embedding enhanced safety measures and physical office design changes to keep operational teams safe. In addition, supporting hybrid teams means digital tools, systems, infrastructure, and cybersecurity controls must be stood up and maintained to keep remote and non-remote employees productive and engaged – as the introduction of remote working arrangements means a shift in the way all people work together, not just those moving offsite.
As the post-pandemic new reality of work unfolds, governments are not just reacting to the crisis; they are making plans for a sustainable future that focuses on putting citizen and employee needs first. COVID-19 has given leaders an opportunity to articulate the future shape of their workforce and make plans to develop their people so that they are equipped and ready for this new reality and beyond.
Seven key considerations for the evolution of work
Designing a future that supports the evolution of work is a complex activity that requires thoughtfulness about organizational and human capacity for change and detailed planning. With this in mind, there are seven factors leaders should consider throughout the recovery phase to create a reasonable and solid people-centric plan.
Emotional and physical wellbeing:
Consideration of the impact of COVID-19 and all of the change it has created for employees should be paramount. 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 well-being. Policies regarding compassionate leave, mental health support, and time off may also need to be flexed to provide people with the support they need.
While living in the "steady state" of the pandemic and moving toward the post-pandemic new reality, communication will continue to be extremely important as staff will be highly sensitive to change. Until measures to manage pandemic conditions are developed, precautions 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 these conditions.
Leadership and team management:
The capabilities required to manage teams have changed. Moving forward, people leaders will require training and upskilling to learn how to support employees and teams who are both remote and still in the main location of work. New approaches to performance management and employee coaching will be required.
The reshaped workforce will also need to be more diverse and inclusive, as well as provide new opportunities for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC), LBGTQ+2, and people who identify as having a disability to participate fully in all levels of organizations. This will require anti-racism training and programs, as well as coaching, mentoring, and sponsorship activities that lead to more racialized and vulnerable Canadians in all levels of government, especially at the highest leadership positions.
Office hierarchies are changing. Virtual meetings provide the ability to access and interact with anyone in the organization , and this is eroding traditional office barriers among managers, executives, and employees. The removal of these barriers is providing an opportunity for formerly "hidden" leaders to reveal themselves as previously unrecognized talent and be given the opportunity to shine in new leadership positions.
In shaping the workforce of the future, leaders should focus on tasks and processes, not only roles. The "atomization" of work enables a system view of the tasks and processes that exist in organization and that can be changed with technology and/or be delivered remotely. This enables managers to understand what portions of work can be delivered by whom (human or digital worker), which can lead to more efficiency and effectiveness, and a more agile deployment of people to activities. This is workforce shaping approach is contrary to traditional workforce planning that tends to retrofit people into jobs.
Skills and Capabilities:
As work evolves, so will the required skills and capabilities. The future of work will include areas of talent in which governments have not yet heavily invested (e.g. data science, data engineering, artificial intelligence, change management, and more). There will be opportunities to find this talent both inside government through job corridor data analytics and gig workers who temporarily join the government from the private sector.
While there is no single route to developing these skills and capabilities, an understanding of what the future of work holds will be critical to designing targeted, effective learning and upskilling/reskilling options. Remote access to education has become more possible because of the pandemic, and the potential to access nationwide remote worker talent means that those who have become unemployed in any region of the country provide a pool of untapped talent from which governments can hire. Government leaders may also have an opportunity to re-skill and deploy individuals between departments.
The ability to work remotely in some professions within government means that where people live is less or not relevant to what they do for work. This provides a great opportunity for leaders to increase the participation of people across the country who can contribute to policy and the delivery of services and programs.
Furthermore, reducing the importance of physical location offers cost savings that would be helpful in addressing government financial challenges. A workforce shaped for the future may well enable roles to be carried out from areas with lower rents. Existing office space that is not needed could be rented out or sold, and governments can provide jobs in regions that require support while reducing the pressure in large cities. It is important to remember, however, that large populations of government employees cannot do their work from home. As such, equal considerations must be made to ensure they have the equipment, skills, and team connectivity required to fulfill their role in a physical office or in the field.
Flexible and hybrid working:
When working remotely, staff have more time in their day because they are not commuting or traveling 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 be integrated with home life helps meet personal preferences and is likely to drive greater productivity and improved emotional wellbeing.
In all scenarios, the role of leaders as role models should not be underestimated. If managers choose to return to the office, staff may follow suit, presuming it is what is expected of them. This should be carefully considered to ensure that it does not ignore public health guidance and that groups of people are not excluded because of an inability to return due to personal or family circumstances. Seeking input from staff on their preferences will be important.
True digital transformation:
A truly connected enterprise focuses on: What can be done differently in a way that connects back, middle, and front offices so that the information staff require to do their jobs is accessible, complete, and secure. This helps to guide what physical or paper-based processes are digitized and what manual workflows are automated or adapted. Whether it's simple changes or system-wide upgrades, now is the time to take stock of what remote employees require to be as effective as they were in the physical office and to make investments in remote working tools and infrastructure that support employees' sociocultural, environmental, and digital experience.
The future of work and the workforce is complex and multi-faceted. The challenge moving forward will be to predict and develop the capabilities, processes, and technologies needed to manage and support the diverse Canadian population and sustain the benefits of a hybrid workforce. The Canadian government has already shown its willingness to explore new ways of work; now, it's time to turn overnight pandemic crisis solutions into permanent workforce transformations.