How is remote working changing the public sector?

What impact has the lockdown had on the possibilities for more regular home-working across organisations, and what technology is needed to support this? Sascha Giese, Head Geek™, SolarWinds, explores

Across the public sector, remote working seems certain to have a more important role to play in the future. Right now, it’s a national health necessity, but once this crisis is behind us and organisations can go back to choosing where people work, it remains to be seen how many will set aside what they’ve learned in recent weeks and return to their pre-crisis approach.

But, given the efforts made to adapt, how might short-term, enforced change result in longer-term change and benefit both public sector workers and organisations?

Accelerated IT investment
Providing the tools and technology to enable people to work from home has meant some IT investment has been happening more quickly than usual. Indeed, the need to offer access to services such as videoconferencing on such a broad scale may well have been years away under 'normal' circumstances.

But these are far from sticking plaster investments, and IT spend currently being made by public sector organisations in rapid response to the Covid-19 crisis shouldn’t just be viewed as a short-term fix to keep the wheels turning—it will deliver long-term benefit. Building a Virtual Private Network (VPN), for example, to extend secure connectivity to people working at home will continue to pay for itself after workplace restrictions have been fully lifted.

And there’s a strong argument which says once the infrastructure is in place to work from home, we can’t sensibly justify reducing it again. Now people have the tools in place and organisations are more familiar with supporting their needs, the momentum behind continuing to invest in technology for positive workplace change will be hard to resist.

New experience, expertise, and best practice
Like many, the public sector is building valuable new experience and learning more about remote working best practice 'on the fly'. Understanding how to help people work effectively from home and when they don’t have the option to meet in person is being trialled, implemented, and reviewed simultaneously. Previously, this process may have taken years, as projects to increase the level of home working would have gradually helped to build understanding—but no-one would have suggested such massive change in such a short timeframe.

Irrespective of how many more people work from home in the future, there’s no doubt our individual and collective understanding about how to do it well has moved forward enormously.

Changing workplace culture
Perhaps one of the biggest changes those working from home have seen is workplace culture. Overnight, the usual office rules, conventions, and social norms have gone—replaced by a way of working unfamiliar to many of us.

This has brought with it huge challenges about how to work well from home and how to keep those vital relationships in place, and will raise some long-term questions about why some people are more able to adapt than others. We’ll always have the opportunity to meet in-person (eventually), but we may also find we’ve gained something extra with the option to be at home more.

The long-term need for traditional office space has become a hot topic—it remains to be seen whether we’ll all soon return to our familiar surroundings or if organisations will move to smaller office spaces alongside much more home working, with the financial savings it’ll bring.

Building trust and promoting well-being
A major factor in the ability of teams to successfully work remotely from each other is fostering and maintaining trust. Organisations are quickly finding relationships built on mutual confidence allow teams to pull together to meet their individual and common goals, even when they’re apart.

Another feature of our current situation is the overdue increase in concern for workplace wellbeing. Protecting the nation through enforced isolation has refocused many minds on the benefits of protecting our mental health. Emerging from the crisis as a kinder, more caring set of employers and employees will be a huge benefit for society as a whole, long into the future.

Leading positive change
The public sector is always under pressure to reflect changes in society, and past experience tells us public sector working practices have been ahead of other sectors in fostering positive change, with organisations prepared to roll out new ideas before others. The amount of flexible working in the public sector, for example, was already ahead of the private sector—an ONS report published last year points out 42 per cent of public sector workers said they worked flexibly, compared to just 21 per cent in the private sector.

But, the ubiquitous health risks faced by everyone, no matter who they work for, has brought shared change to many millions of people at the same time. Public and private sectors are on this path together. They can share experiences and advice, can empathise with each other, and approach the challenges with a uniform purpose.

Remote working has become a major feature of our collective response to Covid-19, but also offers the prospect of significant long-term benefits for the health and effectiveness of many people across the public sector. In time, when we can fully review the benefits in better circumstances, we’ll be able to take the best of what we’ve learned into a permanent working environment.

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