Local Government Chronicle roundtable: Taking the benefits of hybrid working forward

Martin McFadyen, Head of Public Sector, Virgin Media Business

“I think if I reflect on COVID, (it shows) what happens when you trust people. We trusted people to just get on with it. And boy did we deliver in this sector.”

Those were the words of Craig Cusack, Assistant Director for Enabling Services at Warwickshire Council. Trust was a theme that came up time and again in our second Local Government Chronicle roundtable, during which attendees explored the benefits and challenges of hybrid working for local authorities.

Our recent report with the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr) found that UK public sector organisations had accelerated their digital capabilities by an average of 4 years during the pandemic.

But how do local authorities now plan to make the most of that acceleration and implement new ways of working in the right way? And what will they leave behind?

I had the pleasure of joining the roundtable, expertly chaired by LGC Editor, Nick Golding, and made up of local authority officials with a range of different experiences of digital technology during the pandemic.

And while trust was a major theme, the attendees touched on some other important topics during our time together.

Here’s what I took away from the conversation.

Offices and town centres are evolving

Attendees were quick to point out that local authority buildings have historically played a dual role - not only do they serve as offices for employees, but they provide for the community too. However, this could soon change.

Tessa Cole, Programme Director at Future Workplace, Kingston Royal Borough Council, said that they were rethinking the role of the office now that hybrid working is underway. “I think we still recognise people will want to have spaces where they can come together and collaborate. And that is something that has come over overwhelmingly. And (now) we are thinking, is the future of the office just rows and rows of banks of desks or is it actually something quite different?”

Craig Cusack highlighted the importance of local council buildings as community hubs. “I think the office will always be there. I think what Tessa says about the link of place is fundamental. We can't ignore that our office buildings (or) what we call our core settings have a massive impact on (that sense of) place.”

Rob Huntingdon, Assistant Chief Executive at St Helens Council, seemed to suggest the very makeup of councils’ physical estates will evolve. “Our future view is that actually we will be in localities rather than a central town hall or a central headquarters that exist in a building where customers have to come and travel to access services.”

Of course, not everyone can work from home, and local authorities need to keep this in mind when designing places of work. Lisa Selby, Assistant Director – HR and OD at Wigan Council, spoke of the importance of avoiding focusing in on just one aspect of hybrid working.

“Lots of our frontline staff obviously won't necessarily get the same experience. How do we change a conversation from showcasing collaborative space that some staff will never potentially utilise to that longer-term vision?

“What is the future of town centres, and how we use that space? Coming in and working collaboratively, but still continuing, ultimately, to deliver our services to our residents in the best way.”

It’s time for a culture shift

The conversation soon covered one of the hottest topics in the hybrid working conversation –presenteeism. It’s something that many local authority decision-makers are striving to avoid.

Rob Huntingdon is one such person. “One of the things that we wanted to tackle was presenteeism and move to be more of a productive workforce rather than one that managers are just seeing people in the office and not necessarily understanding how productive they are.”

Ultimately, this comes down to more than technology. It’s about a cultural shift, one which will enable people to work in a hybrid environment without any sense of guilt or missing out. Paul Matthews, Chief Executive of Monmouthshire Council, said that striking this balance “is a bit of an art in it in its own right.”

“I think our experience is that most of this digital has got very little to do with digital, actually it's all to do with sort of meshing it into the culture that we think is right for our organisation. Certainly our experience so far is nobody's let us down.”

Tariq Khan, Chief Digital and Information Officer at London Borough of Camden, developed this point further, highlighting the need to look beyond technology and building stronger cultures. “I think the focus on technology is a bit of a red herring when we are talking about a new way of working. What worries me is the problems that are coming down the line, which are things like, ‘Why haven't I been promoted and the other person has, and that person's in the office more because our manager is in the office?”

For Tessa Cole, the idea of distributing leadership is a key focus moving forward – helping employees feel empowered at home by asking them to define their own parameters. “We actually asked teams to define themselves with some corporate parameters about how they were going to operate in a hybrid world, recognising there's such a diversity of the kinds of services we offer and recognising teams are experts themselves.”

Hybrid working is not without its cultural challenges, however. As Tessa went on to point out, organisations need to ensure they’re not supporting “really unsustainable working patterns” in the long term and that people aren't “chained to their laptops all day.”

One solution to this, according to Jennie Neill, Head of HR and OD, Interim Head of HR Stockport CCG, Stockport Council, is making sure employees feel heard. “We are taking the agile and iterative approach, and really trying to keep that confidence that we are listening, we are hearing, but we're not always going to get it right. It is absolutely around the culture of the organisation and taking that to where we want it to be next.”

For Peter Gadson, Strategic Director of Customer and Digital Services for London Borough of Brent, a blended approach will be vital as we move forward. “It does need this approach where we have face to face as well as back office technologies. And that’s about (making sure) staff are trained in the right areas to support our residents.”

Moving forward: Hiring staff you can trust

Above all else, attendees championed the importance of trust in ensuring hybrid working is effective and successful for everyone. Panellists agreed that trust should play a key role in the recruitment process if organisations want to open new doors for themselves.

“We've always understood the heart of agility is that very old fashioned but never out of fashion word trust.” Said Paul Matthews. “I think one of the things that many have learned over the course of the last couple of years is if your recruitment processes are working well, and you're actually bringing people to your organisation that you fundamentally trust, then anything becomes possible.

As local authorities look to the future, Lisa Selby says they must now consider what they take forward. “So managing based on outcomes, we've trusted our staff. We've certainly shown us how they've excelled and performed. So how do we take those good parts and build it into the future?”

One thing is for certain – in a sea of hybrid and remote working conversations, the tide is turning in favour of those organisations which have the right culture, hybrid working policies and collaboration tools in place to support their employees.

And it will stand them in very good stead to weather any future storms that may yet be on the horizon.

Thanks to all those who took part in our roundtable:

  • Chair: Nick Golding, Editor, Local Government Chronicle
  • Russell Tilsed, Senior Director, Public Sector, 8x8
  • Peter Gadson, London Borough of Brent, Strategic Director Customer and Digital Services
  • Tariq Khan, London Borough of Camden, Chief Digital and Information Officer
  • Paul Matthews, Monmouthshire Council, Chief Executive
  • Lisa Selby, Wigan Council, Assistant Director - HR and OD
  • Tessa Cole, Kingston RBC, Programme Director - Future Workplace
  • Jennie Neill, Stockport Council, Head of HR and OD, Interim Head of HR Stockport CCG
  • Rob Huntingdon, St Helens Council, Assistant Chief executive
  • Craig Cusack, Warwickshire Council, Assistant Director for Enabling Services
  • Sarah Getley, Staffordshire Council, Assistant Director, People
  • Bindu Arjoon, Exeter Council, Deputy Chief Executive

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