In times of crisis, especially in the UK, people often look back to the British economist John Maynard Keynes, his theories guiding the search for macroeconomic solutions to large scale problems. Whether that’s misplaced or enlightened, Keynes is also well known for a prediction he made back in 1930: of a world in the not-too-distant future – our present – with far fewer working hours due the advancement of technology. For Keynes, the 21st Century would be liberated from the tyranny of work, with 15 hour working weeks.
It’s Keynes’ prediction that I want to focus on in this, our current crisis. Because although technology has become vastly more accessible than Keynes could have imagined, the promise of a working-life transformation never followed.
And amongst all the deep seated questions this pandemic is prompting, there are lessons for how technology and work relate to each other, and a sense that many of us have discovered new working arrangements more in tune with our lives and the services we need to provide to our customers. Now, reflecting on how we have changed our working arrangements in lockdown we are entitled to ask ourselves: why go back to the office?
In an office many of us will sit in front of a computer, self-conscious of the people around us and our places in the status hierarchy, aware of every second, and our timesheets, spending unproductive time staring at a screen with little on it. An exaggeration maybe, and some organisations have moved on further than others. But it remains a stubborn part of office culture at all levels, in many, many places.
It raises the question: why be in an office at all when you can complete your work at home to the same degree, and all of the saved time and cost of commuting can be given back to you? You can be more focused. Present in meetings. You can spend more time with your family and loved ones. And you can be wherever you want.
Where we work is not about technology deployment. What it is instead, is a people exercise. But where do we go from here?
To answer that at the local level, we conducted a snap survey of Basildon Council staff who were asked to work from home. I confess to being slightly taken back by the results. It confirmed that just over half of our office-based staff had never, or very rarely, worked from home before.
Yet on every issue on which we probed – including feeling trusted, confidence in your manager to raise any concerns, feeling clear about what is being expected, having the resources needed to be productive – the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. For example: 92% felt trusted to do a good job and make the right decisions; 89% are clear about what is expected of them right now and 92% agreed that the council has adapted quickly with new ways of working so we can still deliver for our customers.
That’s amazing feedback, and our data fully supports a picture of a workforce who are capable of adjusting quickly and getting important work done – like creating a process from scratch to deliver millions of pounds in grants to keep local businesses afloat. Forty council staff worked to get it up and running in a few weeks. All from home.
The feedback challenges some of our assumptions about where to focus our energy in pushing forward our digital strategy – staff are generally up for the challenge, agile and are able to stay focused. Our managers may need more support to help them continue to manage remotely, to review and evaluate projects into the future and to work collaboratively in the virtual world. Staff may need more support to help them manage work and home responsibilities and to establish a safe and sustainable working environment at home. And as senior managers we need to find ways to stay visible and engage all our workforce in the wider business of the council.
That seems a clear way forward to a truly digital future based on experience, data and vision – and to rid ourselves of caution, abstract direction, or the personal preferences of management.
People do not need to be tethered to a place. A new normal for the working environment can come out of this that truly gives responsibility to our employees that all full-grown, complex, and capable adult human beings should be afforded. Perhaps then we can fulfil that Keynsian vision and finally liberate ourselves, if not from work itself, from the tyranny of the office.
Mandie Skeat is director of services at Basildon Council