How councils can build harmonious & inclusive cultures in the hybrid working world
Head of Public Sector
Virgin Media O2 Business
05th August 2022
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More satisfied customers and employees. More productive team members. The freedom to choose how and where we work. Hybrid working has positively impacted the workforce in various ways.
The introduction of hybrid working led to a 4.9% increase in customer satisfaction, a 3.6% increase in employee satisfaction and a 3.4% increase in employee productivity, according to our research with the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr).
However, many local councils faced certain challenges in the shift to remote and hybrid work, such as the need to accommodate different workers, empower junior members of staff and align digital skills.
A recent report found that at some local councils more than 90% of staff work at home. While this may not have been representative of all council authorities, the number is still staggering and highlights just how expansive hybrid working has become.
In this discussion we partnered with the Local Government Chronicle, a leading provider of sector insights, to further understand the steps which councils have taken to build an accommodating culture and address the challenges of hybrid working.
Chaired by Martin George, the Deputy Editor of LGC, the panel featured insights and discussions from local council representatives.
Emerging from the discussion were four major themes:
- The need to balance the preferences of new and existing staff
- Creating a culture of trust and goodwill amongst the workforces
- The importance of engaging with field force workers
- Improving the digital skills of hybrid workers
1. Increase collaboration between new and existing staff
Many leaders expected a “Great Return” to the office following the easing of lockdown restrictions. However, hybrid working has remained first choice for many and local councils are almost fully entrenched in hybrid working structures.
But the panel recognised that this hybrid structure has made it difficult for those new to the workforce to get adequate training and first-hand experience.
Scott Crudgington, Deputy Chief Executive of Hertfordshire County Council, highlighted “issues in relation to new inductees, people being onboarded in the organisation, that learning by osmosis, understanding the culture of the organisation.”
He continued, saying these processes are “taking much longer and if anything, it’s not proven to be effective in the current way that we’re doing it.”
Donna Cox, Acting Head of Communications and Marketing at Leeds City Council, also picked up on the difficulties of incorporating new staff but recognised that the solution for this may lie in hybrid working itself.
While it can be a hindrance to the onboarding process, she said “we’ve noticed that those particular members of staff graduates and temporary staff all actually have a strong desire to be in the office more so than staff that had always been there.”
And collaborative technology is helping to bridge that gap between remote and office workers by engaging existing employees. Donna spoke of an instant message chat that was set up at the beginning of the pandemic, so everyone was aware of their colleague’s work and new staff could learn from those with more experience.
“We’ve actually used that as a training forum for some graduates…they’re learning from all the other people in there, and they’re helping to guide them and mentor them in a way that if you were sat in the office doing it, it might be shouting across the desk.”
As important as it is to engage with staff and listen to what works for their individual needs, businesses should also consider what is best for their learning outcomes while hybrid working.
2. Fostering a sense of trust and goodwill
Similarly, the idea of building trust amongst employees is something which the panel agreed was imperative to make the hybrid structure work.
Scott stated that “working from that basis of trust has had a real positive impact on the culture of the organisation and therefore getting a much greater return in terms of goodwill, in terms of dealing with pressure points with recruitment challenges.”
Knowing that the organisation trusts them to carry out their roles, he continued, has benefited staff retention and work outcomes.
But this has also come by engaging staff in those conversations and overall decisions regarding the flexibility of hybrid working.
Scott highlights the importance of having “an open conversation” amongst teams and departments as well as “an environment where people are not judged on presenteeism”, to ensure that individuals making use of flexible working are not constantly missing out, and that their work is judged by outcomes and output to foster trust and inclusivity.
Former councillor and research fellow at the University of Nottingham, Nick Sharman, made a similar point. “People now are working longer hours and are more present. And you can see how the pressure builds up.” As a result, “people have to be able to define limits because the employer will naturally expand the exploitation of their workers and there needs to be a counter.”
Susie Faulkner, Corporate Director, Customer Transformation and Resources at the London Borough of Haringey, agreed, highlighting that “developing a self-managing approach rather than a top-down approach has been helpful in getting people to establish the way they want to work.”
At various points the panel recognised that building a sense of trust and goodwill amongst the workforce was imperative to employee retention and productivity. Hybrid working, which has become so commonplace, will not work without leaders allowing for greater flexibility.
3. Engaging with the field force
The pandemic forced employers to consider the differing needs of their staff. While it may have been seamless for office workers to move to a remote structure, considerations had to be made for the frontline and field workers who were unable to do so.
This was especially the case for those in local council where, as Nick Sharman pointed out, almost half of the workforce is on the frontline. Not everyone can work from home. So, how do we take them into consideration?
As a result, Nick argued that it is “very important that we find a sensitive route that sees the workforce not as a set of office workers in front of computers, but as a very diverse range of people coping with different circumstances.”
Susie Faulkner also made a similar point, stating, “Local government is local, so you need to come in and see the area that you are working in. If you don’t live in the urban area, you do need to come in and spend some time there so that you have that connection, you have that visibility, you really understand what your borough is about.”
Although it is important to accommodate teams and give them a choice with hybrid working, it is also imperative to recognise the wider purpose of the organisation when considering ways to work.
And the use of technology is increasingly important to that purpose. Susie continued, stating that “making use of mobile equipment and better integration of information into systems, so we have active live feedback and regular two-way communication.”
The same can be said for field workers at Virgin Media O2. Our engineers, for example, were unable to work from home. Considerations on the culture of the organisation, whether this comes in the form of updated technology or company policies, need to be made to ensure that the field force are not forgotten about.
4. The increasing need for digital literacy
The adoption of technology was imperative to each panel member in being able to seamlessly move to a remote and hybrid structure at the onset of the pandemic.
However, this highlighted a common problem amongst workers and local residents alike, as internal council systems proved difficult to use.
Susie Faulkner recognised that one issue they faced at the onset of the pandemic was that “people’s digital literacy was maybe not where we expected it to be”, often as council system interfaces were not straightforward to follow for both workers and residents.
Indeed, with the adoption of technology, it is important that the underlying infrastructure is there to support it. If a legacy system is propelling the IT, this can be counterproductive to the benefits of technological adoption — making systems more difficult to use for staff and users. This can be beneficial for staff retention.
But for recruitment, it is equally important that the education system is more aligned with the needs of businesses and has a greater understanding of what the skills and requirements of the workforce are.
This is especially the case as technology and digital begin to play a bigger role in workplace. Emphasising digital skills will allow us to retain and engage with existing workers.
But it will also help in recruiting a new generation of workers who are more prepared for the technological requirements of the workplace.
Culture of learning
This was a captivating discussion which highlighted several challenges which local councils have faced with the introduction of hybrid working.
But one recurring point was that leaders need to be aware of ensuring that hybrid working is not generalised but rather is inclusive of the entire workforce. In order to make the structure work, a cultural change is needed. One which values engagement with staff, listening to what they need from their workplace and responding to them.
And this will only happen if local councils are willing to collaborate with the private sector. There are companies that have incorporated hybrid working into their structure since long before the pandemic.
In short, the best way to ensure hybrid working works for everyone? Sharing expertise.
This is also why we've launched Success Agreement- it puts your organisation’s digital transformation goals at the heart of our relationship. We think you should expect more, so we’re going above and beyond the standard SLAs to make a unique commitment to your success, built on partnership and flexibility. Find out more here.
Thank you to all those who took part in the roundtable with me:
- Scott Crudgington, Deputy Chief Executive of Hertfordshire County Council
- Donna Cox, Acting Head of Communications and Marketing at Leeds City Council
- Nicholas Sharman, former councillor, and research fellow at the University of Nottingham
- Susie Faulkner, Corporate Director, Customer Transformation and Resources, London Borough of Haringey
- Martin George, Deputy Editor of Local Government Chronicle