‘This was liberation’

By Daisy Carter | 01 February 2021

The pandemic has turned our lives upside down - and it’s arguable that the greatest disruption affecting the largest number of people is the way we work.

From office staff setting up in spare rooms and on kitchen tables to key workers facing unimaginable challenges, from the sudden move to furlough to the shock loss of jobs in well-known high street shops, everybody’s working life has been affected.

Experiences of staff in Greater Manchester during this period reflect those of many public servants - life and work have been hard, relentless and, at times, rewarding. As well as looking forward to a post-vaccine future, GM colleagues see an unprecedented chance to turn (relatively) short-term disruption into long-term, positive, transformation improvement.

This blog, looking at workforce and culture, is the latest in a five-part series exploring the learnings from GM’s COVID response as captured by Innovation Unit.

Changing where and how we work

As home spaces became work spaces, colleagues reported how their personal and professional personas started to blend, with people getting to know each other better and working relationships improving. As one participant said: ‘When you are on Zoom and not in your office in a suit behind a desk, but at your kitchen table in a casual shirt like everyone else, the human face of leadership is displayed.’

Working from home offered and required a new flexibility and brought a welcome shift from presenteeism while the move to online meeting and collaboration platforms led to shorter and more focused meetings as well as improved communication between colleagues.

Productivity increased along with general staff satisfaction, with the majority of colleagues involved in this research reporting a reluctance to return to ‘business as usual’.

Welcoming a new community workforce

To help people where and when they needed help, some of GM’s workforce were redeployed to the frontline, working with residents, community, voluntary and business groups and taking on responsibilities not prescribed in their role profiles. As one colleague from Salford Council’s children’s services described: ‘There was a cultural shift from “this is my role” to “this family needs help”’. 

New blended and flexible teams evolved across providers, with long-standing barriers to collaboration and unnecessary paperwork thrown out to allow colleagues and volunteers to work as equals to get the job done. As a colleague in Rochdale said: ‘... forget high fidelity and procedure - what do people need? What will be good enough?’

In Stockport, police, adult and children’s social workers, housing and health came together to protect the most vulnerable children and families. Triage moved from weekly to daily meetings and whole family issues, including jobs and adult mental health, were brought into the scope of their work. From this emergency response, new ways of collaboration have emerged.

In their feedback to the Innovation Unit, many colleagues said they wanted to keep the partnerships and collegiality created with local groups and to build on their shared mission and mutual trust. 

In particular, colleagues reported they enjoyed the freedom to step outside of their existing roles, take on new challenges and be creative with their work. 

What happens next?

Determined to capture and learn from the experiences and insights from its COVID emergency response, Greater Manchester’s Public Service Reform Team worked with Innovation Unit to talk in-depth with more than 100 people from different service areas from across the 10 local authorities. 

Ideas to ‘design forward differently’ focused on creating a workforce which is:

  • Empowered and trusted 
  • Supported to work flexibly particularly home working and making the most of digital platforms
  • Relieved from the burden of unnecessary bureaucracy
  • Involved in regular, high quality collaborative learning across the organisation and with residents to share ideas, resources and practice.

Change is happening in Greater Manchester. As one practitioner reported: ‘People have been ready for a long time, but the pandemic liberated them to lead. We had good foundations in GM in relationships and partnerships… but this was liberation.’

Daisy Carter, project coordinator, Innovation Unit

You can read the full report here and you can follow Innovation Unit on Twitter @innovation_unit

To talk to Innovation Unit, contact daisy.carter@innovationunit.org

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