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Public sector digital trends 2023 collection | Article

Hybrid working matures

2023 will see continued tensions and debates about ‘home versus office’ working, particularly in the public sector. A recent report presents evidence of a maturing of practices that are achieving a pragmatic balance, underpinned by technology support that will become more commonplace still in 2023.

The majority of workers want to retain flexibility of being able to work from home, but a growing number of younger workers anecdotally also want an office-based anchor as well. This is understandable for reasons of social interaction and career development opportunities.

At the heart of the debate in 2023 will be a range of conflicting priorities to resolve:

  • The desire to get public workers back to build and sustain integrated teams that can benefit from functioning face-to-face, not just through video conferencing.
  • Enable flexible home and remote working wherever possible, so that buildings can be sold and the remaining estate more efficiently used and building management costs lowered.
  • Introduce ‘intelligent hubs’ designed for hybrid working, especially on the outskirts of larger towns and cities, reducing commuting demands, travel to work lost time, pollution, and city centre congestion.
  • Enable working from home for better work/life balance and as a tool to improve recruitment and retention of key staff.

A range of feedback was presented by those contributing to this research in terms of the different needs and preferences of citizens and public workers, with practical and technical implications:

Post-Covid expectations

  • Home working has become an expected ‘norm’ – an employment ‘right’
  • Covid legacy responsibilities are hard to shift (such as pets and childcare)
  • Time wasted travelling to work can be better spent
  • Concerns over working from home costs and FOMO (fear of missing out)
  • Reducing office overheads and costs.

Technology possibilities

  • Citizens have got used to using digital tools
  • IT systems can demonstrate performance without being ‘in the office’
  • ‘Anywhere, any device, anytime’ is now a reality
  • Remote working tools can address some of the downsides of remote working
  • Tools to manage devices, trusted systems, expanding infrastructure, data security and compliance requirements.

Citizens needs and expectations

  • A faster, joined-up service not limited by ‘bricks and mortar’
  • As resource pressures bite only digital offers a way forward without service degradation
  • Expectations for face to face when required, but blended with ‘digital’ services
  • Ability to be in control of where and when services are accessed.

Changing employment practices

  • 4-day week, 9-day fortnights and more types of employment
  • Recruitment and retention policies requiring flexibility to be offered
  • Employees offered increased incentives and support remotely and on site
  • Use of shared services drop-in ‘smart hubs’
  • Changing pay structures to reward innovation
  • Collaborative teams working across organisational silos.

Furthermore, whilst many employees have enjoyed the flexibility and ‘non-commute’ of homeworking, it is likely that downsides of remote working from an employee perspective will need to be addressed in the coming year by public service employers:

  • It can exacerbate loneliness and mental health issues
  • There is inequality where some jobs just cannot be done remotely
  • Not everyone is self-disciplined enough for home working
  • With probable staff cuts, a lack of ‘visibility’ may disadvantage some workers
  • Home environments may not be conducive or even safe for sustained working
  • There may be poorer learning opportunities from experienced co-workers – particularly in the case of new entrants into the workplace
  • Remote working can hold back career development (due to prejudices or unconscious bias)
  • Team cohesion can be lost, and tensions heightened with remote and dispersed workers
  • Employment costs are often shifted to the employee (home heat, light, ‘wear and tear’, even subsidised food and so on)
  • Home working is said to stifle innovation where this depends on face-to-face interaction.

One key factor for the coming year is energy cost – working at home will be more expensive than it was, and damp, cold and heat will tempt a number of people to want to get back to a ‘temperate’ and well-serviced office environment, saving on home energy bills and other costs. The impact on local economies of hybrid working and reduction in office space/buildings in city centres is also a concern, leading to rethinking the purpose and function of the high street and investment in digital infrastructure and services.

“We are reducing our dependence on email and using collaborative tools, such as Microsoft Teams instead”

Jane Macleod, Chief Information Officer, Nelson City Council, Aotearoa New Zealand

All of these points are in addition to the mistrust of some employers as to whether remote staff are indeed as productive as they would be when they were ‘in the office’.  In 2023, the public sector will need to avoid some of the more draconian methods used by some organisations that have turned to electronic monitoring to track employee productivity.

A more stable balance will emerge in 2023, with continued homeworking, but also flexibility in providing in-office time and virtual meeting spaces that support hybrid working. There will also be a growth in smart buildings that are designed to support more flexible use and collaboration between services and organisations.