David Beggs, practice director at Managementors, explores just how successful public sector remote working has really been for productivity
The digital age has brought about many changes in the way we live and work. One of those has been how technology has allowed employees to work remotely. The 2018 ONS Labour Force Survey revealed that 1.56 million UK employees work from home for their main job, and the government expects 70% of its departments and agencies to embrace smarter working (including remote working) by complying with the Smart Code Working Code of Practice of the British Standards Institute by 2020.
There are obviously many benefits to remote working, not least of which is the improved work/life balance that it offers. But I recently visited a client which had office space for 200 desks and there were only seven people working in the office that day and I couldn’t help but feel that the pendulum had swung too far.
When people discuss the Future of Work, remote working is usually a key component of that, but can it be said that remote working – in the public sector especially – has been wholly effective?
The benefits of remote working
People often say they are more productive when working at home. If there is a specific task, such as writing a report, it can certainly be easier to focus on that without the distractions that can come in the office.
Who wants to spend two hours each day navigating London’s creaking tube network, or sitting in a traffic jam, when they could easily work from home? The stress of commuting has been avoided and the employee is, in theory, more productive.
Offering remote working also gives local authorities and other public sector employers a much greater selection of candidates. It makes it easier to employ people with children, the elderly and neurodiverse people that might find the pressures of the office too much.
In a busy modern world, the importance of work/life balance should not be under-estimated either. Yet despite this, there remain significant challenges that come with remote working.
The downside of remote working
While the technology has developed to allow people to work from home and join meetings remotely, who can honestly say that such meetings are as effective as physical meetings with everyone in the room?
Even when the technology works as it should do, being connected digitally can lead to a physical disconnect. When people don’t have face-to-face interaction, it is harder to build rapport, camaraderie and trust that is so important in the public sector. This can have a negative influence on culture and for younger people in the workplace, who perhaps need more guidance, it can be a real issue.
It’s also debatable whether remote working does improve overall productivity. While people that work remotely say they are more productive, is this actually the case and how is that productivity being measured?
Making it work
This is not to say that remote working shouldn’t take place, more that it needs to be managed much better for both employers and employees to get the benefits. This should include:
Better management training
It’s a different skillset managing a remote team than it is managing one that you see every day. How many public sector departments have provided the required training to manage a modern workforce effectively? Managers and supervisors need to be able to integrate everyone into the working environment and there are techniques and tools required to do so. The public sector may invest in the technology to allow remote working, but much less so in the training that will make it effective – this must change.
A regular presence at the main place of work
For any organisation that provides remote working, there still needs to be times when everyone is present at the main place of work. This can be weekly, monthly or whatever fits best, but it’s an important part of maintaining workplace culture.
Bringing everyone together is important for moral and instilling the right ethos. Working remotely can lead to workers feeling isolated, struggling to maintain motivation and unsure of where their role fits into wider organisational objectives.
Effective planning and reporting
When someone is physically near, it’s easy to see what they are working on and what their progress is. If people are working remotely then there needs to be planning of what is expected, transparent communication about those expectations and a clear reporting mechanism with meaningful insight into what is being delivered.
Remote working has been a mostly positive development and as we move into a new decade, it’s something that is only going to increase in the public sector. But if employers are to see the same benefits as employees, it needs to be managed carefully or productivity and workplace culture may both be affected.
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