Coming out of the pandemic many organisations were keen to harness the benefits of hybrid working, but were also acutely aware of the need to ensure workforce wellbeing. This roundtable reflects on the learnings from the past two years and shares insights into how councils are moving forward, adapting their strategies to build resilience in the future and create a place where people can live, work, and study.
- Chair: Debbie Knopp
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the how organisations both globally and nationally operate. Within the UK, the nationwide lockdowns and the social distancing guidelines has had a significant influence on local authorities.
Local authorities have been at the forefront of the response to the pandemic, playing a leading in role in enforcing social distancing guidelines, delivering testing and vaccination centres and distributing grants for self-isolating citizens and struggling businesses whilst continuing with day to day delivery of regular services.
Coming out of the pandemic many organisations were keen to harness the benefits of hybrid working, but were also acutely aware of the need to ensure workforce wellbeing is accommodated, culture is maintained effectively and working practices are in line with staff and resident expectations. However, within these challenges there have been opportunities to develop more flexible solutions for councils as well as attracting and retaining more diverse and talented staff.
This roundtable has been organised to reflect on the learnings from the past two years and share insights into how councils are now moving forward, adapting their strategies to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic whilst looking to build resilience in the future and create a place where people can live, work and study.
Case study: Essex County council
Essex County Council (ECC) shared how they adapted their ways of working during the pandemic and since. It was important for ECC to implement support mechanisms to ease the transition to home working. They provided training on how to use technical equipment and home working support packages.
ECC carried out digital remote working research, that was both internal and through third party organisations. This information was combined with academic research and staff survey feedback to prove that there were benefits to home working if the necessary conditions were met.
One of the main findings outlined the critical condition to effective home working is allowing employees to be open about their own attendance, capacity, and delivery to provide for flexibility of office working and home working. This formed the basis of ECC’s Ways of Working Programme.
This programme outlined how hybrid working should be enforced and its impact. It was important for ECC to consider and take stock of both the property strategy and organisation principles to decipher best practice in terms of hybrid working. This led to the creation of a framework, that outlined different working styles, location, flexible working hours and accessibility.
To help put this into practice, each team in ECC created a team charter. This helped managers and teams to think about the best way of getting things done and gave employees a guide to work to in each team. This was backed up with ‘personalisation conversations’ between each employee and their manager to interpret what was best for them in order to create a specialised way of working.
To support managers, ECC has put in place a managing in the hybrid world learning programme. Having practiced this way of working, ECC has found that collaborative work is best carried out in office spaces and individual work is most effective at home. The Considerate Colleagues Campaign helps employees to choose when most appropriate to go into the office.
ECC next phase is to roll out their biannual employment engagement survey to gauge feedback of this elevated way of working and continue to reduce vacant office spaces.
One of the main challenges of hybrid working has been utilising office space. Some councils were already making technological changes to using new software such as the cloud, which allowed for a smoother transition, to complete remote working. This left offices vacant and likely to end up being sold or turned into community hubs. This has been seen as an advantage for some to reduce the maintenance costs for councils especially with increasing energy costs. There are questions around what the impact will be for the local high street and conversations around the need for social spaces are being had.
Other councils have introduced smarter working policies, such as using an app or booking services, to manage the capacity of office space. This helps employees decide what day is best to use the office, depending on their meeting schedules. There has also been the introduction of a leadership hubs where members, heads of services and corporate leadership teams have an open-plan area to use for meetings across the organisation, not just in vertical teams. Some councils are aiming to reduce their carbon footprint through using hubs across the community rather than centralised offices.
There has been resistance from senior leadership to allow important conversations to take place remotely. This poses the challenge and the question, if office spaces are being reduced, then can colleagues guarantee availability for larger meeting spaces?
Another challenge of hybrid working is maintaining a healthy work/life balance. Councils wish to encourage employees to take breaks, and some have introduced a protective hour policy.
Employees often experience back-to-back meetings, so councils are making a conscious effort to remind colleagues to take breaks and build in support initiatives. It has been expressed that there is less opportunity to casually converse with colleagues, it is hard to quantify the effects of this but it has anecdotally impacted engagement levels especially for new starters.
There is concern over the rising cost of living and employees spending more time at home than in the office, which will increase overall electric bills. This could be especially concerning during the winter months, as there is a further anticipated spike in energy costs. Councils are beginning to consider how to support employees through this, and whether the rising energy costs will work out as cheaper than travel costs.
There were many opportunities identified with the new way of working. The reduced revenue costs allow for expenditure to be utilised elsewhere with the council. Having limited office space also leads to careful and deliberate planning of in-person meetings. This is beneficial for employees as they get to decide how to tailor a work pattern that suits them and have meaningful in-person conversations when necessary.
Some councils have been able to share spaces with district councils, utilising government offices efficiently. This has allowed for a strengthening in partnerships with organisations in the community and district councils. Councils have been looking at turning government respective offices into public sector spaces that can be used more widely and flexibly. These public sector spaces can be harnessed for a multitude of creative uses such as covid vaccination centres.
Involving the community and the public has allowed for better connection with residents, which has helped to improve services such as libraries and community hubs. This has also been seen through the huge increase in public engagement with online democratic meetings. Running meetings online has been a powerful for local democracy and encouraged further involvement from the community. A clear topic for continued lobbying.
There has been more opportunity for inclusivity. Councils that are rural areas have opportunities to attend online events and represent their points of view. This has allowed for more networking opportunities and a collaboration occurs more frequently.
Online working has also allowed for better use of data from all organisations and has sparked conversation around how to better share and imbed this data into decision making.