There seems to be a general agreement amongst employers in many sectors that hybrid working is the way forward after the ‘great working from home experiment’ of COVID-19 and because of the opportunities it could create for organisations and their employees.
Local government has many staff who are not office based but having almost all our staff working remotely over this last year has prompted a debate about what our work and workplaces will look like in the future.
We therefore wanted to explore what hybrid working might look like in local government, given the variety of our jobs, our duties to our residents, communities and elected members and our backdrop of quite traditional structures and working practices.
At our three roundtable events we had 135 local authorities from England, Wales and Scotland who were keen to discuss and identify the key issues of adopting hybrid working. Our attendees also shared their insights and plans on how they are transitioning out of working in a pandemic and what they are doing to develop new, more hybrid, ways of working that build on what we have learned during the year.
All the local authorities at our events agreed that hybrid working IS the way forward for them, but they are at different stages of a complex journey. Our discussions therefore focussed on three main topics:
- the issues or barriers that authorities are encountering or foresee in moving towards a hybrid working model
- what authorities are planning or doing to resolve these barriers
- what would help to support authorities to implement hybrid working practices.
But first, what is hybrid working?
We thought it was important to ensure we have a shared understanding of what the term hybrid working means to us.
In local government a significant percentage of our jobs and staff are not office-based but neither are they home-based, so it’s not as clear cut as for many other employers. We have many community-based and frontline operational staff who work remotely in many different and varied locations and different shift patterns. Therefore, many local authorities perhaps didn’t feel the same shock as employers in other sectors may have done about the removal of staff from the office, but this also means that imaging new ways of working is not so straightforward.
We proposed this definition of hybrid working for our sector to try to capture this:
Our roundtable local authorities agreed that this captured the key elements of how they defined hybrid working and how more remote working could operate for our sector.
However, they wanted to ensure that some other key considerations were not lost, which are:
- supporting wellbeing and work-life balance
- working in collaboration
- being customer-focussed
- agile working
- achieving outcomes
- innovation in services
- being inclusive
- digital transformation
- employee choice and engagement.
What are the issues or barriers to adopting hybrid working?
Early in the discussions it was clear that authorities attending the roundtables were aware of the complexities involved in shifting to more remote working, particularly because of the different ways that our sector operates remotely already.
However, the key point arising from discussions was that, for any hybrid working approach to be right for all of our different jobs and communities, we will have to be able to work together in a more blended way: some staff in the office sometimes, others on the frontline, some at home. The complexity therefore arises from agreeing what behaviours, practices and systems can support the blend of different combinations of working locations.
The most frequently mentioned issues in adopting more hybrid ways of working were:
- creating and communicating the right working cultures to support good collaboration, communication, and connections between staff in all the different places and ways they work
- being clear what hybrid means and how it may apply differently to our different jobs, and it may not apply to some jobs
- using office space differently and how to design this to support blended ways of working, particularly because the ratio of desks and staff will not support large numbers of office-based staff, even post-covid measures
- health and safety – in particular, wellbeing and mental health and how to manage Display Screen Equipment requirements for staff in all the different places and ways they will be working, but including work-life balance and managing the increasing number of virtual meetings
- managing inclusion and fairness, with particular concerns for new or more inexperienced employees
- moving to a different type of performance management culture with less emphasis on time spent working and more focussed on effort contributed and outcomes achieved.
How can we overcome these issues?
For our roundtable authorities the answers to many of these issues lies with employees and teams themselves. Authorities are conducting extensive engagement programmes with employees, managers, staff network groups, councillors, and partners.
Through surveys and consultations, they are asking all staff (operational, frontline, homebased etc) to tell them about what worked well and not so well over the last year and agree what the future of work will look like.
This engagement has resulted in many wide-ranging Ways of Working programmes, encompassing reviews of property and office design, technology and equipment, management competencies, knowledge management and new workforce strategies. These programmes will often be supported by a review of the organisation’s HR policies and terms and conditions.
However, most of our attendees agreed that at the end of the day allowing choice and decisions for staff on what this new flexibility looks like for them is the key to adopting hybrid working. However, this would be accompanied by clear parameters or principles of how it would apply to individuals and teams.
Very few authorities told us that they would be imposing changes or contractually designating anyone as a home worker as they believed this would not encourage the new ways of working flexibly that their projects are aiming for.
We heard examples of Charters and Work Style Agreements that will help staff and managers to “drive in the same direction” without needing to impose a set of rules for hybrid or flexible working on staff, supported wide-ranging communications strategies.
We also discussed how senior officers can lead by example by working in different locations across the authority’s community and buildings, and not be ‘Town Hall-centric’ in their working practices.
Being mindful that this flexibility might not be suitable for all jobs or employees, many authorities are also exploring other, additional, ways of being flexible. For example, by looking at shift patterns or Work Anywhere models (including co-opting different local authority buildings such as libraries as working spaces or collaborating on workspace with neighbouring authorities) or by categorising jobs into fixed, anywhere, community, operational and discussing different models of flexibility that could work in each category.
A common and important issue arising throughout the discussion is staff wellbeing. Issues around managing staff wellbeing were brought into sharp focus during the pandemic as personal and professional pressures increased because of the virus and lockdown measures. As employers we started to understand the effect this had on our staff and on our organisations, and our roundtable attendees recognised that there are many lessons to be learned from this as we develop new ways of working. Authorities were mindful of how remote working has increased presenteeism and in many cases worsened staff’s work-life balance. In response, many authorities are putting additional resources into their Employee Assistance Programmes and designing training for managers focussing on supporting staff wellbeing.
What other considerations do we have?
Our roundtable authorities also shared with us some other key concerns and drivers for adopting hybrid working. These include:
- ensuring flexible working models and practices promote authorities as employers of choice in a competitive market
- using flexible working to support the authority’s environmental and ‘green’ ambitions by managing office resources and travelling and commuting time responsibly
- being mindful of the impact on the local economies if large numbers of local authority employees are no longer working and spending money in town and city centres
- how new ways of working can support financial savings
- timescales may shift and being flexible about how we adopt hybrid working will be key – it is likely that we will need a hybrid of hybrid working while we try new ways of working that may need to be tweaked and tweaked again and as we begin to understand what works and what doesn’t and ensure that we take all our employees with us on that journey