February 2020: Do you have a “Martini” approach to smart working?

Naomi Cooke, Head of Workforce, explores what is needed for local government to truly get the benefits from smart working.

Photo of Naomi Cooke head of workforce

A few months ago I wrote a blog exploring some issues around doing smart working well. In my blog I considered how smart working can be about simply streamlining processes, introducing hotdesking and ‘letting’ some staff work from home. I sought to encourage councils to be courageous in imagining new working practices that could come out of new ways of engaging with our communities, e.g. by looking at different approaches to where and how jobs are done, rethinking reward strategies and new leadership models.

The blog got a lot of interest and I felt quite proud that I had contributed to a meaningful discussion. Then I was asked for further insights. This was obviously incredibly flattering, but it did bring with it the challenge to actually have insights!  My first thought was that maybe I had used up all my insights in the first blog, but I realised that one of the things our members value about the LGA is our unique position to have an overview of the issues of our sector combined with intelligence gathered from central government policy about the challenges and opportunities for local government. So while I was pondering what strategic issues this particular topic posed, I realised that was the issue – how to be strategic about smart working.

The public sector has had to be very ‘task focused’ in recent years to contend with the many challenges we face but that cannot be at the expense of ‘looking outside the cave’. We need to move away from what I’ve heard referred to as the “Martini” approach to smart working (i.e. “anytime, anyplace, anywhere” for those who remember the advert), and consider what kind of workplace will truly represent our business principles and deliver our business goals.

Till now we’ve been like Sisyphus, tirelessly pushing the rock in our quest to squeeze productivity gains out of our small range of flexible working processes when smart working needs true agility, not just flexibility. It just isn’t sustainable or effective to keep bolting on old working practices to new ways of working and engaging with our communities. Motivation dwindles, exhaustion sets in, wellbeing suffers. We need a culture shift. A new way for the organisation to behave, not just a new way of managing employees’ time. Smart working policies must promote agility, trust and empowerment rather than set the conditions around flexible working.

Yes, there’s still technology and management skills and meeting employees’ needs to consider, but at the end of the day this really is about looking at our workplace and the best way to get things done. These new ways of working must become central to the business of the organisation.

It is tough to become an agile organisation that truly embraces smart working because there are lots of different paths to it and no single destination. Agile is above all a mindset and without this embedded into how you operate, your organisation won’t see the full benefits. It’s about a focus on performance and outcomes. Measuring impact, not activity. Measuring the impact, not on staff (although they are of course part of this) but instead measuring the impact on organisational achievements.

To be properly strategic about the business challenge you are addressing, you need to identify the vision for the organisation and test how your activities and your workforce delivers against this. We need to develop strong, authentic messages about the kind of organisation we want to be and test every interaction with staff, residents, community partners and suppliers against these.

We have a case study of how Aylesbury Vale District Council are doing this as part of their whole-council digital programme. From this we can see how to promote leaders who model this behaviour, have organisational (not HR) policies that mirror this vision and managers with the right competencies to deliver those kinds of workplaces and services. So my insight is this: be mission driven, self-reflective, error embracing, and keep your eye on the prize.