August blog: Smarter working

Naomi Cooke, Head of Workforce, talks about smarter working - challenging what we think we know about work and how it gets done in our organisations. 

Photo of Naomi Cooke head of workforce

I read a really interesting blog recently that got me thinking about how councils are introducing smarter working.  The blog is called “where do I put my cornflakes?” and the author – civil servant, Simon Morys – makes the valid point that many plans for smart working seem to start with an enthusiasm for hot desking and space efficiency while staff are left wondering where they are supposed to put anything and for ‘cornflakes’ see also shoes, papers, charging cables etc... The conversation often then moves on to flexible and remote working – leaving staff to find their own space for work equipment and time for cornflakes. Meanwhile others look to shiny new IT products to make work for response and efficient. The problem is, while all these elements can contribute to smarter working, they are not smarter working. 

Smarter working is about changing how we think about work. We are looking at a fundamentally different approach to how we work and organise our working environments. Working smarter is about challenging what we think we know about work and how it gets done in our organisations. We spend a lot of time and money equipping buildings, building decision-making into hierarchies, and monitoring the behaviour and attendance of our employees. Then we have teams of people tasked with creating and maintaining thousands of processes to ensure compliance and reporting. We then occupy ourselves with planning tweaks to all of this and saying its more efficient instead of doing the superficially simple but actually very difficult thing of thinking about different outcomes for our service users, residents and businesses; and thinking about the different jobs needed for new models of service delivery, new ways of working for staff using new tools and new process, new approaches to teamwork and management, and new measures of what being good at a job looks like.

Councils are an important part of our communities and are ideally placed to find the best approaches to meeting local needs. We are responsible for delivering around 80 per cent of public sector transactions in our areas (LGA Transforming Local Public Services), and so have a particular responsibility to work with local partners to design these services in the most accessible, economic and ‘user-friendly’ way. At a time when public services face fundamental challenges, technology and digital tools and approaches will play a key role in achieving this transformation but it will also need a radical change in councils as places of work. 

So a picture emerges of more technologically advanced, more customer-focussed interactions; with more efficient delivery, lower costs, and higher levels of innovation, coupled with interesting and meaningful jobs in good working environments and you start to see that actually, this is not a nice to have – this is business critical for local government.

Some used to think that technology was the biggest hurdle to overcome in opening up deskbound office staff to more flexible ways of working and this was one reason so much energy was put into this bit. We worried that mobile technology was expensive, insecure, difficult to implement and that people couldn’t work as well remotely as they could in the office.  Since then though technology has evolved and demands have changed. It is now clear that the biggest challenge is cultural resistance to looking at different ways of working.

Increasingly we are seeing that councils who make the best use of modern technology to give employees more control over how, when and where they work, will create a more agile and adaptable workforce, able to understand and respond efficiently and effectively to customer needs. These kind of workplaces will be more attractive to the diverse and talented workforces we need – important when you consider that 78 per cent of councils report recruitment difficulties (LGA Workforce Survey 2017/18). These kind of workplaces are more able to support a diverse workforce. For our employees who are parents, carers or people with mental or physical health issues; the full-time, office-based, 9-5 traditional ways of working often just don’t work and we miss out on the potential of their talent and ideas and passion for public service. And that’s why we’re supporting councils with to make the shift through our LGA TimeWise Councils initiative. As Lib Peck, Leader of Lambeth puts it: "Being Timewise allows us to recruit a more diverse workforce and help raise the standard of living for the families of those we employ."

So while you’re chomping through your cornflakes or reading this on the train, have a think about how your team, your service, your council, or most importantly, you, can embrace and encourage smarter working – for everyone’s benefit.