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Forwards, not backwards

Written by: Neil Lupin is managing partner at Green Park Interim & Executive Search.
Published on: 27 May 2021

As lockdown restrictions ease, local authorities are turning their attention to the future of the workplace and of the workforce. Not one single chief executive or HR director I’ve spoken to has talked about ‘going back’. There’s no such thing. We’ve come too far to go back, and to do so would not only be disrespectful to those we’ve lost in the last 14 months but also it would do our workforces the ultimate disservice.

We are moving forward, whether that’s to a ‘new normal’ or whether we’re calling it something different. That sense of recalibration for local government which I’ve talked about before on this page is continuing with pace and is shaping the next stage of our relationship with the places we call work and the people we call colleagues.

Whatever your views on presenteeism one thing is certain, relatively few office-based officers will ever be back in their offices full time. This isn’t a debate about the relevance of offices going forward, as for many of our colleagues the office is essential. Some have been in the office, even if not full time, throughout lockdown. Many thrive on its social interaction, rely on it for their wellbeing and are simply more productive in an office environment.

There are those also for whom a different psychological contract with their employer in the future will enable them to be healthier, happier, more focused at work and ultimately more productive. For many, what the last 14 months has proven is that work is not a place, it is an activity, and it can be delivered on an agile basis. In some respects, this type of workforce transformation was long overdue and out of an awful tragedy we may in future celebrate the fact that where, how and (sometimes) when officers deliver their work has delivered huge benefit to local government at a time of unprecedented demand.

At the same time, the sector has a responsibility to its workforce to ensure that, albeit within the confines of the needs of the service, they are enabled to harness what works and continue to deliver in new ways. That will inevitably lead to some uncomfortable conversations about presenteeism, visibility, remote management and the like. But these are healthy and long overdue conversations that, if managed correctly, will benefit employers, employees and service users. That, after all, is the ultimate goal – to enable people to deliver their best work.

Every Section 151 Officer I speak to is looking at how to enable service delivery to continue if not improve while also driving savings. While for many the increased use of technology came at a significant financial outlay last year, the potential for savings from property rationalisation alone far outweighs previous outgoings. For some councils that means remodelling buildings that have only recently been revamped. For others they have the opportunity to factor in new ways of working, agile technology, fewer desks and more collaborative spaces into their plans. In effect there is an opportunity to future-proof the place of work. 

The opportunity to replicate these changes with customer and community interaction is there for the taking. Many are a long way into their journey of gently moving as much activity as possible towards online and self-help models which in itself continues to drive considerable savings which ought not to be to the detriment of user experience. But with any level of automation it is essential to ensure that customer experience is not diminished with less human interaction.

It is that same human interaction and the choice about where we work that so may of us miss the most. While Teams and Zoom have cemented their place in our working lives, the experience of speaking to someone on a video call versus being in the same room just isn’t the same. Too much still gets lost in translation and we miss those nuances that enable greater levels of collaboration and understanding to happen when we’re together. As one senior officer who joined her authority back in November put it so eloquently, she has no idea what any of her colleagues look like from the neck down! She said it with a wry smile, but the joke belies a serious point about the limitation of video calls.

Choice is key. And it is choice that authorities need to build into their people strategies so that – yes again within the confines of positive service delivery – employees have the choice about where they work. Many already do so – indeed one council in particular has already changed its employment contracts so that even senior officers need only base themselves in their civic centre five days per month. More is fine, but it is an option, a choice – and it means they are able to attract candidates from further afield who might never have previously considered joining them if it meant full-time relocation. For many, eliminating isolation and increasing social interaction through work is key to creating a better work-life balance. With it comes enhanced productivity and the benefit is happier, healthier, more focused and more engaged workforces.

The same is true for interim managers. Most of our senior interims have, even in leadership positions, been working remotely for 14 months. Some have never visited the authorities they work at or even met their colleagues. Most are engaged in change-based activities which is especially hard when you’ve never had the opportunity to meet your stakeholders in person. We know that our ability to effect meaningful and sustainable change is significantly increased when we can interact in person. Certainly for the majority of our interim managers and our customers, the chance to put choices in place and to spend some time in each others’ company again is something they very much look forward to. 

Neil Lupin is managing partner at Green Park Interim & Executive Search.

Tel: 07967 826026