Andy Start, Executive Officer of Government Services, and Chantal Free, Executive Officer of People Solutions, discuss Covid-19’s impact on how public sector employees work.
They look at what we’ve learned and how we can build on innovations for the future.
How have ways of working changed in the public sector?
Andy: The pandemic has forced us to quickly adapt to new ways of working. The biggest shift, of course, has been enabling remote working at an unimaginable scale and speed. Technology has given people the IT kit and secure access to be able to work at home. Virtual meetings have become completely normal within a month.
As well as nudging organisations to use video conferencing software and remote working practices that have been around for years, Covid-19 has accelerated their use of AI and bots to enable us to manage increasing volumes of work at real pace.
What are some of the major shifts that you have seen so far in People practices?
Chantal: It’s interesting. Some of the things you mention were already part of the direction of travel in the workplace, but this disruption has really speeded that up. I think the adoption of those technologies and ways of working is happening in combination with the dropping of existing social and cultural barriers to wholesale change. Organisations have changed some of their attitudes towards productivity and their culture of presenteeism. What is new is how concepts that were being pushed are now being pulled out of necessity.
We’re learning how to run entire organisations remotely. In one month, we have gone from 5% of the UK workforce working from home to nearly 50%.
At Capita, we’ve been recruiting and onboarding new public sector teams, including those in healthcare, incredibly quickly. We’ve helped to scale up resourcing by screening thousands of applications and remotely onboarding employees from interview to their first day at work, inducting them virtually using video and chatbots.
Andy: It’s hard to overstate the challenge for the public sector. There’s been a dramatic increase in demand for existing services to support citizens during the crisis. There’s been a massive step-up in the requirement for things like benefits, emergency housing and, of course, health care. More and more citizens need vital support that, in many cases, is built on infrastructure that wasn’t enabled for large-scale home working for civil servants and remote access for the public. And another huge challenge has been introducing completely new services in an incredibly short time.
The speed with which the public sector has been able to pivot is astounding. A big part of that is a new willingness to embrace innovative ideas from industry partners and take bold decisions. While we’re in uncharted territory, clear decision-making and rapid deployment has helped to save lives.
What can the public sector learn from the private sector?
Andy: The private sector has arguably led the way in technological advancement in the past, driven by the commercial benefits of agile working and digital transformation. Applied to public sector problems, there’s a real opportunity to reduce costs to the state and to improve customer experience. Moving customer interactions from face-to-face to virtual, with chatbots or video calls, can have a dramatic impact on the speed of processing and the quality of the user’s experience. Tech-enabled home working could potentially save the Civil Service significant time and money and lead to very high levels of commitment and productivity.
Government clients normally – rightly – wait for technology to be proven to ensure they’re making the right decisions. During this period of disruption, they’ve been bolder in innovating faster – to contribute to the greater good.
Chantal: I agree. One of the biggest tests has been whether organisations have the technology, processes and governance to support their people. We’ve been supporting many of our clients with this, such as helping those that have significant contact centre operations to pivot sharply to deploying remote workers and AI-based tools.
A big theme has been the need to cross- or upskill employees quickly. For some time, the private sector has been becoming more aware that linear career paths and static job roles may be a thing of the past and that they need to have access to specific skills when they need them. Sometimes they can buy those skills through traditional hiring methods, but they often have shortages of key skills. So, a means of borrowing or building these skills is becoming ever more important.
This has implications for learning and development, and has created interest in a wider review of learning and training strategies – a desire to test existing learning roadmaps’ robustness (post COVID-19) and how they fit in with HR workforce planning, succession plans, executive education, and apprenticeships.
I think these ways of looking at work are just as relevant to the public sector.
What are the big challenges of remote working?
Andy: There are good reasons why Government clients may have found moving to remote working more challenging than other organisations. The sensitivity – and scale – of the personal data that it holds, to run national systems for health, welfare, and the like, are significant. Civil servants working in key roles must have the appropriate security clearance and systems’ security must be second to none. It’s vital that technology is proven, and staff are trained to the highest standard, to counter the increasing threat of sophisticated cybercrime. And Government needs more trained and cleared staff than it would normally, because demand for vital services is rising. Getting people onboarded, trained and active working from home is a considerable task.
Industry has also evolved to be a sophisticated holder of public data, with the same stringent requirements to protect information and to ensure that employees are security cleared and trained and its systems are secure and agile. Considering data legislation and increasing cybercrime, multinational businesses have had to make their platforms more secure – these mature, proven technology-enabled processes are ideal for helping public sector services to adapt.
Chantal: Then there are some of the more pressing human challenges that can have a big impact on those requirements to protect information and grant security clearance. We’ve seen entire families working from home in a confined space. Conference calls made from sofas or bedrooms don’t naturally lend themselves to some of the Government’s more sensitive work.
But technology is only part of the answer. Organisations today are not structured to be run remotely. Management skills, in most instances, are developed to be effective in physical environments. However, we have seen evidence of the agility with which organisations can shift models – we have assisted many clients in the last few weeks in developing digital training programs to help their managers learn to manage remotely.
Andy: People are the start and end of the solution but enabling them with the right technology is also critical. Choosing the right platforms and systems for operating public sector processes remotely has been vital during the pandemic.
Automating simple tasks and adding rapid processing to public service systems offer huge benefits by increasing the quality or speed of delivery or improving citizens’ access. We’ve seen this work in local authorities where our customer enquiry bot helps citizens to quickly get the information they need and enables staff to focus on helping the more vulnerable in their communities. And in the NHS, RPA makes it easier for health professionals to deliver frontline services by making internal systems less complex.
How can we support the culture shift?
Andy: While this pandemic has shifted how we work, it has been public sector leaders’ actions that have made it happen so quickly. I applaud government leaders who have demonstrated the power of using new technology. Once the most senior people in an organisation have shown the way, it soon becomes part of established ways of working – whether that’s bringing in new technology, adopting a new way of working with a supplier or simply having your business meetings virtually. As we all know, the technology works – all we need is people’s commitment and acceptance.
What’s interesting now is identifying the positive things that this change may herald. Now we’ve moved to a new way of working, we may see real cultural gains. There are few who would not have wanted to adopt more environmentally friendly lifestyles with greater work-life balance, where they can bring their whole selves to work – if there’s a silver lining to this pandemic, this could be it.
Chantal: So far, it seems that people have been quite quick to fit their work around their home life. Managers are learning how to manage remotely and to rethink their previous assumptions about productivity, which have been a major stumbling block to change. Many employees are finding that they can do their jobs just as efficiently from home, and this could see firms drop their objection to remote working and adopt entirely new organisational structures. I think we’ll see organisations having a serious rethink of their property portfolio or, at the very least, how they use their offices for more collaborative working.
Many people have noted the amount of time and money they’re saving in travel and subsistence costs. The positive impact on the environment through reduced travel has also been noticeable. These could turn out to be some of the most important motivators for a more permanent cultural shift to new ways of working.
What have we learned?
Andy: It’s incredible to see what has been done so far to restrict the spread of Coronavirus and to support people all over the UK. We’re so proud of our part in helping Government in this. We’ve moved most of our services to remote working, protecting the people delivering health and welfare services, among others, that are under such pressure at this time. We’ve stood up new services to help citizens to access vital support, communicating to the vulnerable and building remote call centres to support citizens during the pandemic…
The real learning has been about what can be achieved at speed. The technology and the knowledge to move to a new way of working are already there – having the impetus to sweep aside deep-rooted behaviours and assumptions about how we work has meant we’ve been able to change radically and fast.
We’ve learned that some of the things we thought were essential perhaps weren’t, including having face-to-face meetings and office space in expensive headquarters.
But some of the things we didn’t think were essential have turned out to be mission critical. Connectivity has been confirmed as a basic need. Fibre and 5G must be prioritised to ensure the whole of the UK is well connected and everyone has access to skills.
We should learn to simulate the ‘black swan’ events that cause disruption and work towards them, rather than waiting for them to happen.
Chantal: We’re finding that our clients want workforce management solutions. From ensuring that employees who are working remotely can submit their hours and get paid correctly to logging sickness and absence, these tools are becoming essential as we manage our employees in a new way. In the future, all of this will require new technology to be integrated better, and some careful work by employers to change their workplace culture.
In the public sector, one of the biggest shifts has been in how we view essential services. Our notion of what a key worker is has definitely changed. We’ve learned to look beyond job titles and understand the actual skills that people bring to their organisation and the value that these deliver to the public.
Andy: When we get past this pandemic, we should hold onto the positive outcomes of this experience. If working remotely has delivered quality, secure public services during extremely testing times, it can deliver value in the ‘new normal’ – we just need to press on.
Embracing proven technology in our public services can reduce monotony for employees and improve services for citizens – enabling human interaction to be focused on the vulnerable and those who need more support. It will liberate people to focus on people.
Chantal: And there’s something even more fundamental than embracing the use of technology and adjusting to new ways of working. The public sector has been at the forefront of what I think is a renewed sense of solving problems together. This is something that could fundamentally affect how we organisations and work, for a long time to come.