Is remote working in government here to stay?

Gartner Australasia Pty Ltd

By Rick Howard
Wednesday, 25 November, 2020

Is remote working in government here to stay?

As Australian public sector organisations recover from the pandemic, few are likely to return to the pre-pandemic way of managing offices and workers anytime soon. Instead, many are exploring new ways of getting work done — and this includes a greater reliance on remote work.

Government leaders need to shift from viewing remote work as a situational — and temporary — response to the current crisis. Instead, prepare for the inevitable next crisis by recognising remote work as critical to maintaining continuity of operations.

Unlike natural disasters, recovery from the pandemic will have significant ramifications as government leaders respond, recover and renew at the same time. Formerly rigid personnel practices, for example, will become flexible. Gartner anticipates that by 2021, 35% of government agencies will supplement paid sick leave and remote work policies with employee-directed remote work days.

Early in the pandemic, numerous epidemiological models shared similar results — that new cases of COVID-19 will rise and fall through to the end of 2021. The implications of these analyses compelled public leaders and employers to enact safety protocols — and relax them as circumstances permit — in an attempt to keep the pandemic in check.

To ensure workforce health and safety, Australian government departments and agencies have taken measures to continue remote work arrangements for designated employees indefinitely. While the long-term impacts of the pandemic can’t be fully assessed, it’s highly likely that the future government workplace will stabilise as an optimal balance of remote and onsite workers.

The demands and benefits of a hybrid workforce model provide government leaders with an opportunity to strategically reinvent and rescale how work gets done and public services are delivered.

These leaders can benefit from some of the early lessons from the frontlines.

  • Use online tools for open and frequent communication.
  • Devise flexible work schedules to allow employees to balance both work and personal life.
  • Plan to sustain remote work capabilities for an extended period after the crisis has passed.
  • Prioritise training for employees to work with each other — and the public — in a virtual environment.

With steps being taken to make this new mode of working permanent, the challenge for departments and agencies is how to successfully sustain and grow a remote workforce. Where do they go to from here?

Enter the CIO to make it happen

Just as they did at the beginning of the pandemic, government CIOs can take the lead to ensure remote work is simply the preferred way government work gets done every day. To make it successful, sustainable and permanent, there are five steps that must be taken:

1. Justify the rationale

Performance metrics must be in place to demonstrate how the benefits of remote work outweigh the costs and risks. This could be quantified through an increase in productivity, a reduction in office space needs, a decrease in transit subsidies or other factors.

Reinvent the government workforce by finding the optimal mix of onsite and remote work. Base requirements on location and function dependencies. Tasks with high location and function dependencies are best done onsite. Those with low or moderate location and function dependencies can be done remotely.

2. Connect remote work policies and practices

Link policies and job responsibilities to balance the risks and rewards of remote work. Start by establishing remote work as the cornerstone in a broader digital workplace initiative. Consider adding a remote work section to every job description by establishing expectations and requirements. Also, promote remote work as essential to business continuity and disaster recovery.

3. Shift from being reactive to proactive

Whether or not we want to think about it, having a remote workforce will prepare Australian government organisations for the next crisis, so it’s important for departments and agencies to take a more proactive stance.

Conduct regular exercises post-pandemic to increase organisational agility and resilience. This could involve reviewing baseline performance against benchmarks and taking corrective action; or maintaining readiness with regular remote work drills. Also consider re-evaluating remote meeting and collaboration platform solutions, as well as extending digital workplace capabilities with automation, artificial intelligence/machine learning and data analytics.

4. Promote collaboration with new tools

Collaboration might just be one word, yet it has many moving parts — collaborative culture, collaborative work, collaboration applications, IT infrastructure, devices and facilities. It’s now a mission-critical capability in government.

Prepare to support an expanded portfolio of collaboration and communications tools. Fostering a culture of effective workplace collaboration is now crucial. Doing it well will help make the new normal ... normal.

5. Adopt proven practices to enable and sustain remote work

It’s important to engage employees early in the process and address their concerns to make improvements and changes. Lead with flexibility and build trust. Prioritise the wellbeing of employees, whether they’re remote or onsite.

Establish outcome-based performance measures. Base eligibility on the work, not the person, and allow exceptions. Seek feedback from employees about what is working and what is not. Then, determine how much remote work your organisation can handle.

Rick Howard is a VP analyst at Gartner, where he focuses on emerging business and technology trends in the public sector. His key areas of coverage include data governance and analytics, open government data, case management and artificial intelligence in civilian government.

Image credit: © Studio

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