COVID-19 “React, Respond, Renew” – what does this mean for the local government workforce?

Councils worked at breakneck speed and pulled out all the stops to protect communities and support the most vulnerable in response to the global pandemic. Our workforce was at the heart of helping us through this national emergency. Our Workforce Principal Adviser, Sarah Ward, reflects on how this changed work for all of us and what will be different in our workplaces as we move forward into the renew stage of this new world.


What does the future of work look like for local government?

Photo of Sarah Ward

On the 23 March 2020, the UK Prime Minister announced on that we were going into lockdown and that unprecedented measures would be taken to try and slow the spread of the coronavirus. From that moment on, our working lives and our personal lives were significantly changed.

For local government the challenges were significant, and our workforce was in the eye of the storm. The pressure was on to immediately decide how to continue the delivery of many local services, and to identify which services should pause without negatively impacting communities.

Huge numbers of staff started working from home, other critical and frontline workers quickly established how to continue their roles in the new social distancing context. Managers had to swiftly adapt to managing a range of front line and remote teams while at the same time trying to understand and implement a tidal wave of new government guidance on service delivery and working practices.

For our front line, critical workers, adapting to the social distancing guidelines was the first challenge, specifically regular handwashing, and understanding the needs, uses and correct application of PPE. Incredibly, amongst all this, local authorities continued to deliver key services such as refuse collection and care work, schools continued to offer their services to the children of critical/key workers and vulnerable children, and most public spaces remained open for us all to use to try to stay healthy.

By redeploying around 22,000 of their staff, local authorities were also able to rise to the challenge of finding new ways to support their communities through the crisis, providing and co-ordinating support for those who were shielding, and delivering food packages and medicines. Our public health teams quickly learned the new epidemiology, reviewing the trends in transmission rate and testing, and shared their expertise and knowledge across all sectors.

The reaction from local authorities was to step up, to take on the challenges facing them to support their communities. This meant jobs were done in very different ways, often in difficult circumstances and with little clarity about what the future might hold, while a deadly virus was taking hold and spreading fear and concern throughout communities.

Here in the Workforce Team at the LGA, we worked hard to support all of this by negotiating changes to terms and conditions, advising on new working practices for council and school staff, providing resources for recruiting social care staff and supporting staff wellbeing, and addressing the thousands of employment law issues thrown up by the changes.

But it doesn’t end there. We know now that we are in this for the long haul, even as we see parts of the economy starting to re-open, more and more pupils returning to schools, and lockdown rules starting to ease. It’s becoming clear that we will never go back to exactly how things were before. Most local authorities will be a different shape and size with new or altered priorities. That’s why the Workforce Team has started to think about our work in terms of ‘react’ (to the lockdown), ‘respond’ (to new working conditions) and ‘renew’, not just recover. We’re thinking about what’s needed to support local authorities as they re-evaluate structures, practices and assumptions for their services and what this means for their workforces.

Some of the themes that are emerging for our work are about lessons learned, for example, we may have been surprised about which roles emerged as being “critical” during the pandemic, and we have a lot to learn about what this taught us about workforce planning, skills shortages and re-shaping jobs. We’re also talking so much more about diversity and inclusivity, and how we must ensure that we equality proof the future, so when we’re talking about increasing home based working, or interviewing people via digital means, for example, we will need to be careful we’re not excluding candidates or allowing unconscious bias to drive our decisions.

Leadership has also emerged as an area of huge importance going forward with such diverse and dispersed teams. The crisis has shown us the importance of compassionate, collective, open and yet decisive leadership skills. One of outcomes of this crisis will be more emphasis on developing behavioural and values-driven leadership and we’re discussing how we can support local government to embed this throughout their organisations.

There are also lessons to be learned from the Organisational Development field, often a discipline that managers found hard to grasp, but it has truly come to the fore during the crisis in showing how to be the magical glue that makes businesses adaptable, responsive and resilient in the face of a world that changes by the day. We’re looking at different tools to help local government continue to reap the benefits of this and how to share the skills learned in lockdown about reconfiguring teams, rethinking how resources are deployed and re-engineering longstanding practices and processes.

As well as sharing lessons learned, we’re also thinking about emerging issues such as employee wellbeing. Sadly, as we try to establish new types of organisations and new ways of working, we will be dealing with not just the risks to our employees’ physical health but also to their mental health. There are already signs that COVID-19 has taken its toll on the nation’s mental health which are likely to have long-term impacts for our staff. Managers will need to be compassionate and develop a strong framework to support their employees’ mental health, which may have worsened during lockdown or may be affected by attempting to adapt to whatever the ‘new normal’ becomes. We’ll be developing resources to equip local authorities to support the current pay negotiations include a National Review of Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace.

There’s a lot to think about and do. We already have a lot of information and resources to help you in your role as responsive, accountable, inclusive and resilient employers – take a look at our website – but we know there’s more to do. You can help us with this. We’ll be looking for case studies, round table participants, pilot councils and partners to work with to share good practice and develop effective solutions to our emerging people management challenges. Get in touch if you’re interested in working with us on workforce@local.gov.uk.

If the crisis showed us anything it is that people really are the biggest asset in local government: local communities are going to need to be confident that we’re getting this right.