When Tessa Cole joined Kingston RLBC in February 2020 as head of service for transformation she had no idea of just how much radical change was imminent.
Before the pandemic hit there was already an appetite at Kingston for transformation, with new chief executive Ian Thomas in place since December 2018, and Caroline Kerr taking over as leader of the Liberal Democrat-controlled council in March 2020.
Both are ‘leading from the top in terms of our transformation agenda’, Ms Cole told The MJ.
She has recently moved into a programme director role for the council’s Future Workplace transformation programme, which is formalising the process of building in the lessons learned from the pandemic in terms of planning for the future.
She called staff’s response to the pandemic ‘incredibly impressive’, and went on to explain how the council is now taking the best parts of the pandemic response and channeling them into how it does business.
There was a huge amount of willingness and ability among employees to be flexible and agile in how they operated during the past year, and move to parts of the organisation that were in need of support while going into areas they had no experience of previously, she explained.
But senior officers don’t necessarily have all of the answers, she emphasised. ‘I think we’ve been quite honest about that with our staff. I think that because of the level of uncertainty and ambiguity we are going to continue the culture of “let’s collaborate, let’s co-design what the future looks like”.
‘It really is one of the biggest revolutions in working practice in our lifetimes. This is a real shift and disruption in working practices. It’s about how we continue to develop that together.’
Distributed leadership is one of the crucial issues being embraced by the council. ‘This is something Ian Thomas talks a lot about as chief executive. Essentially it’s about recognising that leadership happens at all levels of the organisation.’
That approach was vital during the initial period of lockdown, because the council had to step up brand new services in hours and days, and had to pivot working practices accordingly.
She was deployed immediately in helping to set up Kingston Stronger Together – the borough’s COVID-19 response hub – along with voluntary sector partners. Having worked in local government for ten years, she said she has ‘never seen anything like it in terms of what we’re able to achieve so quickly’.
Having an agile workforce has been a key feature throughout the pandemic and is closely linked to the distributed leadership approach, she said. ‘At Kingston like in many other places we did a huge amount of redeployment in order to flex activity to needs.
‘A great example is that we had someone from business support who went to help in the registrar’s office, because there’s been a big backlog. They’re still there. They’ve enjoyed it so much that they’ve taken a secondment.’ She quotes many other examples of successful agile working.
At Kingston it’s about ‘creating conditions where people are able to move across different services and when they think about their career path in local government not just seeing it in quite a narrow way in terms of their specific service’.
And like most local government organisations, Kingston is looking at how it can seize the opportunity of offering more flexible working options.
‘As an organisation we are really supportive of that way of thinking. And as a core principle residents and communities are at the heart of everything we do. We’re thinking about how it [new workspace design] aligns to our community hub agenda, we’re looking at the best use of community spaces that are a bit more dispersed, and really questioning how we best serve our residents and where we do that from.’
An ‘old-fashioned council HQ’ may not be part of the future, she added. The council is exploring the possibility of services no longer being located in the Guildhall complex in Kingston – ‘really linked to our wider town centre regeneration that is a key part of our economic recovery post pandemic’.
She strongly believes that recruiting and retaining the very best staff will require a flexible work arrangement. Ms Cole has already recruited two people who work for inner London boroughs who have seen that the council has ‘already got a very strong message around transformation in Kingston and that we’re really going to be embracing flexible working – so we’re already seeing the benefits of our approach’.
Ms Cole concluded that what’s clear from the changes is that for many longstanding staff, the new roles and experiences they’ve had mean they’ve never felt more connected to the Kingston community. ‘There are some real positives that we really want to harness as we go forward. And we need to do this, as the challenges aren’t over for local government.’