‘Smart working used to be an aspiration – now it is government policy’

The government has issued a ‘call to arms’ for experts to help Whitehall make a shift to smarter working practices

Adopting smarter working practices across Whitehall is no longer desirable, according to the government’s programme director for smart working Martin Sellar.

Instead, it is an absolute imperative, and is backed by government policy mandating the implementation of remote-working practices and mobile technology tools.

Sellars’ team, which is housed within the Government Property Agency, is tasked with spearheading the drive to smarter working across the civil service. This process is being kick-started by a “baselining” exercise to assess the sophistication – or otherwise – of departments’ existing smart-working set-ups.

To help make the vision of a smarter-working future a reality, Sellar is looking to assemble a coalition of specialists willing to share expertise with each other and with those spearheading the remote-working agenda.

“We are coordinating and facilitating this call to arms; we want access to a network of experts,” he says. “We want to build this network of experts across the public sector – from central government, executive agencies, arm’s-length bodies [and others]. We are only ever going to be a small central team driving this.”

For all the areas of the business we had a sponsor at SCS level… then we had change champions embedded within teams

Sellar and his unit will be driving government towards the ambitious targets laid out in the Government Estate Strategy published this summer. 

By 2020, the government expects 70% of departments and other agencies to comply with the Smart Code Working Code of Practice of the British Standards Institute. A compliance target of 100% has been set for 2022.

One department that has led the way is the Home Office, where Sellar worked from 2015 to 2018, leading the organisation’s project to implement smart working. He told attendees at the recent Public Sector: Smart Working summit – hosted by PublicTechnology – that, before implementing smarter-working practices on such a large scale, it is crucial to cultivate a clear plan and secure support from senior management.

“We spoke to the Cabinet Office, and we created a vision at the starting point [in 2015],” Sellar says. “We iterated a strategy with the board – that corporate leadership is absolutely key; they need to be walking the talk.”

Working in the here and now
The overall vision for smart working should comprise three foundational strands, he adds: people; technology; and workspaces.

The first of these should focus on “getting the right policies in place”, Sellar says. For the Home Office, this began with defining seven core user profiles: behind the scenes; out and about; speed checkers; office everywhere; technologists; always on; and front of house. 

Each of these comes with a different set of needs, which translate into differing priority levels in terms of the rollout of new technology and working practices. 

Total number of Home Office employees, according to ONS data published in August

Proportion of departments and agencies the government expects will have achieved compliance with BSI smart working standards within the next two years

Date by which all government entities are expected to comply with BSI guidelines

Number of agencies covered by the Home Office’s smart working drive, including Immigration Enforcement, Border Force, HM Passport Office, UK Visas and Immigration, and the main corporate centre

“At one level, I would say everyone should have all the mobile technology. But, at another level, we have to balance that with the benefits you will receive. We have to justify the investment, and there is normally a scarcity of money,” Sellar says. “For ‘office everywhere’, absolutely [they will be equipped with] laptops and smartphones. For other roles, a desktop might be better. In a few years’ time, everyone will be an office everywhere worker – but you have to work in the here and now.”

While it is possible to “create the right environment” by setting policies centrally, the success of their implementation – across a workforce in excess of 30,000 people, in the case of the Home Office – will typically be determined by the extent to which they are embraced by teams and individuals, Sellar says. For other agencies embarking on their smart-working journey, he suggests the establishment of a “change network” of advocates that are spread across the organisation.

“For all the areas of the business we had a sponsor at SCS (senior civil servant) level whose role was to champion smarter working, and we had leads at grade six or seven for individual teams. Then we had change champions embedded within the teams,” Sellars says. “Our whole mantra was to have a small central team – but the change could only come from the teams themselves.”

To support such new ideas and practices, the department spent money on the tools that enabled them, including end-user devices and, as part of wider renovation work, office facilities that were more conducive to smart working.

“We made quite a significant investment in technology, and in the workspaces as well – there was no breakout space in some of the buildings we were working in, which was not really enabling collaboration and different ways of working,” Sellars says.

One smart-working innovation that the organisation did not adopt was implementing a ‘bring your own device’ policy.

“There are different levels of security right across different areas of the Home Office, and we did not manage it,” he says. “We did quite a lot of work [looking at the possibility], but focused more on the investment in laptops and smartphones.”

Estates revamp
The creation of smart-working policies and the rollout of new technology was accompanied by a major revamp of the Home Office’s estate of buildings, in which its central London property portfolio was streamlined and its Croydon campus (pictured above) redeveloped to house an additional 2,000-plus employees, taking the total number of staff based there to about 7,700.

In a few years’ time, everyone will be an ‘office everywhere’ worker – but you have to work in the here and now

The Home Office’s estates overhaul can be split into “four waves”, according to Sellars. The first of these encompassed tactical decisions to vacate certain buildings, while the second covered office consolidation activities and the redevelopment of facilities in Croydon. The third wave was the creation of the Government Estate Strategy up to 2020 – which includes pledges to vastly reduce the number of government buildings and co-locate multiple organisations in a number of new regional hubs – while the final wave is where the “productivity benefits” facilitated by the three prior phases are delivered in chorus.

While the Home Office may be some way ahead of many of its Whitehall peers in rolling out smart working, Sellars says that those beginning an implementation now do so with the benefit of being supported by a clear mandate from the centre of government.

“When I was in the Home Office, smart working was an aspiration. But I cannot emphasise enough that it is now something that is government policy,” he says. “Fundamentally, the mission of our programme is to ensure that we meet government [objectives].”

But Sellars reminds his peers that the realisation of the government’s goals is likely to look different for each individual department, agency, division, team, and person.

“For some people, smart working means coming into the office five days a week.”

The Public Sector: Smart Working summit, organised by PublicTechnology, was hosted earlier this month in central London

Sam Trendall

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