An agile future suggests the ‘Death of Dolly’

Published: 03/06/21
Sign post of future directions


As lockdown restrictions begin to ease, significant challenges remain, with HR teams at the forefront in guiding and enabling organisations to navigate forward. Faerfield recently held its first HR Leaders Forum and asked a group of public sector HR Directors about the key issues they and their HR teams have faced and the plans their organisations have to return to the office.

Flexible, remote and locality working

A consistent theme is there is no rush and little appetite to go back to offices, with all commenting there was no intention to return exactly as before. All have consulted with their colleagues and there is a clear majority for change.  Unsurprisingly, various models are in discussion, whether that be an 80/20, 60/40 or rota-based approach to remote vs location working. Prescriptive approaches may be clearer for employees to understand but bring some very practical challenges. It might be someone’s ‘turn’ in the office, but their work at that particular time may be better suited to be done elsewhere. 

“If work can be done better in the office, come in but if not, they would simply be undertaking the same task as if they were at home.”

It was noted, with some already operating this way, that more localised working utilising community spaces, such as libraries, partnership buildings such as Police, Fire, CCG and other hubs rather than coming into a central base would be beneficial in future. That said, a blended approach with focus on inclusivity to avoid a two-tier workforce, was considered the likely option for most.

Property and accommodation transformation

Many of our panel cited property and accommodation transformation as a key driver of change, with their organisations already having made, or in the process of making, some key decisions. One of the biggest costs, after employee costs, is real estate and as such this is an area all had on their agenda. Examples given included vacating floors to enable them to be let, thus income generating, and re-shaping building and workspaces to reduce physical desks but to enable more flexible and collaborative spaces. 

“The pandemic has energised our estate strategy and we are now thinking much more creatively about locality working.”

One HR Director advised their organisation had already rationalised its’ estate several years ago and are already operating a staff to desk ratio of 3:1 but will be taking this even further to 6:1. They have saved a significant £1.5m on business expenses in the last twelve months.

Staff engagement

Organisations are actively engaging with and listening to their colleagues, through staff roadshows, pulse surveys and online sessions. This has revealed that people are anxious and are seeking to know ‘what the rules will be’. For organisations though, a more flexible stance makes sense where concepts of ‘handrails’ and ‘guard rails’ (principles and guidelines) take precedence over rigid rules or policies. 

“We did have formal policies in place, but these have been put to one side. Instead, we have changed our language and are actively encouraging colleagues to do the right thing...”

A general consensus was that organisations need to really understand their employees’ individual circumstances. Those that do not have space for a designated work area at home for example, or where there are other considerations that may impact their ability to work productively and safely, are likely to require different and flexible solutions to meet their specific needs. COVID should not be a reason to do wellbeing well – it should be part of the day-to-day fabric.

Employee health and well being

Echoed across the group were obvious concerns that some people have and will continue to struggle mentally and physically with isolation. Whilst some have thrived outside of the office environment, many employees miss the social interaction with their colleagues, both in and out of the workplace.  Most agreed that access to good work zones, in whatever form, lend themselves to better creative collaboration, team building, learning and development, which in turn reduces aspects of loneliness and isolation and provides a greater sense of belonging.

“We have one person based in London, but the rest of their team is now in the North East resulting in our London worker feeling isolated and left out.”

“Sickness levels are the lowest they have been in years, but we still have long COVID on our minds.”

Successful flexible and hybrid solutions encompass more than physical locations, space, equipment and employee health and wellbeing. Our HR leaders also discussed other work-life benefits and focussed on the green agenda which provides a far more positive story as an alternative to the negative impacts of COVID.

Green agenda

With many local authorities committed to being Carbon Neutral by 2030, green issues are also important to employees. Some organisations are reflecting upon the positive impact COVID has had on their carbon footprint, such as the reduction in private car usage, and are using this to further improve and reduce their impact on all matters relating to sustainability. Some organisations had or were considering changes to policy where no expenses would be permitted to travel to meetings and charging staff to park to deter them from using their cars.    

“If we give too much choice and reduce assets too much the required capacity may not be there.”

Cultural and behavioural change

Organisations are clearly thinking differently, holding out against the rules and making massive shifts, culturally and behaviourally. Most desire a culture where there is freedom of choice and a move away from the rigidity of 9 to 5 working or as one HR Director said, referencing Dolly Parton’s 1980’s hit, it’s “the death of Dolly.” 

“One of the biggest gains for us is that staff say they feel trusted to do their jobs and can choose where and when they work.”

That said, our contributors recognised that there is a risk that the “elastic band might snap back” therefore, work might need to be done to prevent that happening. 

Customer experience and channel shift

The restrictions imposed have driven a channel shift that has pushed more citizens and customers down the digital route.  Locality working and data has highlighted where the most vulnerable people are (in a region) and provided a better view on how customers want to engage with their local council.

One HR Director did remind us to “open new channels but don’t forget to close the old ones” to help protect the gains and cement new behaviours. 

However, we must remember that not all residents have access to or are comfortable with technology, therefore alternative options to access services will be required. Staff may need to be reminded that they work to serve residents and not to simply focus on their own work/life balance.

Digital technology

Finally, digital technology has been a huge enabler for organisations and their workforces.  Investment in this area will need to be ongoing but appropriate, to ensure that a good standard of equipment is maintained. Technology doesn’t stand still, and the public sector has embraced the digital revolution for many years and is in a much better place than previously. Several examples were given of newer technology and the use of apps for booking desks, office space and enabling a better meeting experience.

A very clear and consistent message was this is not, nor cannot ever be, a ‘one size fits all approach’. All our HR Leaders said that their organisations had already adopted hybrid model principles and plan to continue and indeed develop this further. The need to collaborate, listen and engage to effect long term cultural and behavioural change is critical to driving that change with the workforce. This ability to make a huge impact on the future of work and ensure that organisations can continue to build on practices learned during the pandemic and further capitalise on their experiences, will be key to future success and continued positive outcomes for the workforce and residents alike. 


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