June 2021: Hybrid working will be the new normal . . . sort of

Head of Workforce Naomi Cooke’s new blog about what councils told us at our recent round table events on hybrid working.


Photo of Naomi Cooke head of workforce

Naomi Cooke, LGA’s Head of Workforce, reflects on the many lessons we can learn from the new ways of remote working that the national lockdowns imposed on us, but wonders if focusing on hybrid working as a simple choice between home v office will mean local government missing out on opportunities to develop attractive workplaces and innovative services?
 

“Hybrid working is here to stay” scream the headlines. Psst, I’ll let you into a secret – we’ve worked like this for a long time in local government.  

What these headlines actually mean is that more home working is here to stay. Hybrid working is often presented in purely binary terms as a choice between working at home or in the office but this doesn’t quite capture all of the ways we work in local government, so I thought it was timely to talk again about agile working and how hybrid working fits in. 

Regular readers of our blogs will know that I am an advocate of more flexible and agile working. In previous blogs, I encouraged councils to be courageous in imagining new working practices, to think differently about how and where jobs are done… Aesop’s phrase “be careful what you wish for” springs to mind!  Just a few months after writing that blog a global pandemic arrived and we began the great ‘Working from Home’ experiment. Except we didn’t really.  Most people didn’t actually work from home, and especially not those in local government. 

Although the numbers of people working from home more than doubled in 2020, this only accounted for 25 per cent of people (ONS Survey May 2021). Much of the British workforce continued to travel to workplaces during the pandemic – including a wide range of local government colleagues. 

Many of the 800 different job types in local government are place dependent so working from home has not been an option for these staff either before or during the pandemic. Crucially, however, this doesn’t mean that they were not working flexibly or remotely, just not at their kitchen table. This brings me to one of my key points – working from home isn’t the only type of flexible working. 

The pandemic pushed many of us to be flexible about the location some of our staff worked from, but we’ve always had a significant proportion of our staff who are not office based.  The real impact was to widen the range of roles working remotely and bring to the fore the issues of how we operate as organisations if we are not physically all together. It challenged our managers and systems, made us question our decision-making and governance structures, and developed the ways we can – and should – engage with our staff and support their wellbeing when we are not sitting beside them. 

So, it has become very clear that, although we’ve had remote and dispersed working for a long time in our sector, if we truly embrace hybrid working models for more of our roles it will fundamentally change our workplaces.  

Although we are more familiar with remote working than many employers, this last year has still been a shock to the traditional workplaces of local government and pushed us to consider what different ways of working we can develop that will truly represent our organisational principles and deliver our ambitions for the communities we serve while meeting the changing needs and desires of our staff and residents going forward.

We discussed this at our recent hybrid working roundtable events and it was no surprise that the 135 councils who attended were aware of the complexities involved in shifting to more remote or hybrid working, not least because of the different ways that our sector already operates remotely.  

However, a common concern we heard in all the discussions was that, for any hybrid working approach to be right for all of our different jobs and communities, we will have to be able to work together in a more blended way: some staff in the office sometimes, some working in our communities, others at home.  The complexity therefore arises from agreeing what behaviours, practices and systems can support the blend of different combinations of working locations. All of which has to be underpinned, by excellent line management.

Many council colleagues mentioned the challenges around creating and communicating the right working cultures to support good collaboration, communication and connections between staff in all the different places and ways they might work. Others are thinking hard about how to use office space differently and how to design this to support blended ways of working, particularly because the ratio of desks and staff will not support large numbers of office-based staff, even after covid measures are lifted. Beyond the practical immediacy, all were particularly concerned to ensure new ways of working did more to support diversity, inclusion and wellbeing of our staff. 

So how do we go forward into a more flexible future? For the local authorities involved in our roundtable events, the view is that the answer lies with employees and teams themselves. Through surveys and consultations, councils are asking all staff (operational, community-based, home and office based) to tell them about what worked well and not so well over the last year and agree what the future of work will look like. 

However, during our roundtable discussions it became increasingly clear that talking only about hybrid working and focussing on home v office was too simplistic for our sector.  That leads me to my other key point – this last year has put us firmly and irrevocably on the path to creating more flexible and more agile working cultures, practices and behaviours but we are doing this with a sharper focus on people-first and employee-centric models that are embracing new levels of openness and transparency, where empathy and understanding the employee experience will be the key to success.

We really have reached a step-change in our working world. It would be folly to create strategies for our new world of work that fundamentally excludes the human factor and all that we’ve learned in the last year about engaging our employees from the narrative. The LGA Workforce Team will be working hard to support councils to do exactly that in the coming months.  

You can read what councils told us at the roundtable events about how they're developing new working practices and how we’re planning to help them