Covid-19 has given the public service a golden opportunity to transform how and where it works. It shouldn’t waste it.
by Dale Richardson, Founder & Director of 306 Media & Communications
Originally written June, 2020.
When the Government of Saskatchewan announced a state of emergency in March that shut down most of the province, the private sector immediately began adapting in order to keep operations afloat. With strict measures like social distancing and group limits put in place, businesses like restaurants and coffee shops were forced to close their doors to stay-in dining. Instead of throwing in the towel, many of these establishments pivoted to offering curbside pick-up, delivery to customers that called in orders, and opened online stores to sell products that were previously only available in-person. For several businesses, quickly adapting to the new reality was the difference between thriving and applying for CERB or the wage subsidy benefit.
For businesses and organizations that are not public-facing, like Saskatchewan’s booming tech sector, law firms, sales teams and others, many are now considering what the future looks like in terms of where and how their teams work. After many have seen success (or at least not failure) with remote working, many in the private sector are very seriously considering a permanent move away from the “traditional” 8am-5pm workday model, where employees commute just to find themselves sitting at a desk in isolation.
Some of the world’s largest and best known companies have been leading by example when it comes to remote working. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, recently announced that many of the company’s employees can decide to work from home, even when they reopen their offices after the pandemic ends. Facebook has decided to move towards a permanent work from home model for most of its employees, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has backed out of a real estate deal to acquire 2 million square feet of building space in the Bay Area, citing the dramatically changed working landscape. Shopify, Canada’s most valuable company of today, announced publicly that it will now be a “digital by default” company, with its CEO saying that “office centricity is over.”
In Canada, a recent Leger poll confirms that employees are enjoying the new remote working model, and, at the very least, hope that it continues in some form post-Covid-19. When asked what they would prefer after the pandemic is over, only 19% of those polled said they would prefer to commute to work every day or return to their previous schedule, while nearly half said they would commute to work when needed, but work from home much more often. In fact, those polled in Saskatchewan were actually slightly higher, with 52% of respondents here saying after the pandemic ends they preferred to work from home.
It appears that Covid-19 has irrevocably changed how and where private sector employees (current and future) expect to work. The same can be said for the public sector.
Here in Saskatchewan, as with all other jurisdictions, the executive halls of government will likely always have staff working in-person. Chief decision-makers, elected officials and their staff at Legislative buildings around the country should indeed be expected to be present during the traditional workday; as democratically elected servants, they must be there to answer the phones in the Premier’s and minister’s offices, receive and return correspondence, and support the legislative, official work, and general politicking that these members are democratically elected to do. However, those in executive government should continually be implementing best human resources practices and evolving with the times, regardless of political considerations.
Many public sector employees will always remain in-person on the frontlines, of course, including those in healthcare, teachers and school staff, field technicians and trades employees at our service crowns, and others. However, many of the thousands of civil servants that work at government ministries, including policy analysts and experts, administrative assistants, claims assessors and file managers, communications consultants and correspondence writers, and numerous other positions in the public service can adequately accomplish their work remotely.
There will likely be the concern from the public that remote-working public employees will be less productive — an understandable concern for taxpayers and elected officials that oversee the public purse. But many public sector employees were already doing this prior to Covid-19 without the public noticing, and since the pandemic started we have seen that this “new normal” of remote working can succeed beyond Covid-19. According to the Regina Leader-Post, over 7,000 Saskatchewan crown corporation employees have been working remotely for more than a month now, with no news stories or apparent public complaints that services have been affected or phone calls gone unanswered. The same can be said for government employees staffing the Business Response Team, the group in charge of fielding calls and queries from businesses and organizations affected by the government’s Covid-19 safety measures. Even union representatives have acknowledged they’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well remote working has gone for employees, and managers have noted anecdotally that productivity has at least remained the same or increased amongst staff that are not in the office.
With remote working top of mind, there are a number of other measures government should consider making permanent or piloting as we move past Covid-19 and into the “new normal” of work life. First, government could save millions by consolidating its physical footprint. The Government of Saskatchewan pays substantial amounts of money in rent for privately-owned office space in downtown Regina and across the province, covering full floors of office buildings, and in some communities renting entire buildings. Instead of having separate offices for ministries and government agencies, these can be consolidated into one shared space, with shared reception and administrative space. This would apply especially well in smaller regional centres, where ministries tend to have their own separate buildings or offices. It’s important to note that this move does not mean a consolidation of services or staff, necessarily; rather, it’s a consolidation of expensive, often unnecessary, taxpayer-funded space.
Rather than investing in physical infrastructure to unnecessarily house employees that could instead work remotely, government should invest in digital infrastructure and connectivity. Often a tough sell to cabinet tables before Covid-19, digital communication tools, like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and WebEx, have now become part of the working lexicon during Covid-19. Many deputy ministers have reportedly kept in contact with their own executive teams, and have provided seamless briefings, updates, and information to ministers through Teams and other platforms. Government could also rip out hundreds of landline telephones, considering many employees already have government-issued cell phones, and invest in laptops or tablets and cloud service technology so all employees are able to work remotely at any time.
Inter-office communications tools that are widely used in the private sector, like Slack, are perfect for collaborating with team members and sharing files quickly. Project management platforms like Monday.com or Asana should also be implemented as part of everyday remote working to track accountability for staff. On the client/taxpayer side, an investment of digital infrastructure could result in better online client portals, making services more accessible for citizens, and increasing government efficiency overall. It would be wise to consider a move towards shared service call centres, especially for ministries and crowns that tend to have the same customers, like agriculture, environment, and the Water Security Agency.
It’s important to emphasize that in-person meetings and collaborative sessions will still be necessary going forward as they are critical to the success of government ministries and executive government. Face-to-face meetings have long been viewed as vital to creativity and innovation, and those sessions should not be thrown out the window as part of a remote working policy. In fact, we believe many employees will make even greater use of in-person time than ever before, and that these sessions and meetings will improve mental health and morale as employees enjoy and appreciate the opportunity to get together with their colleagues. At the very least, a blended in-person/remote setup for as many public service employees should be considered.
Governments are often accused of doing what’s always been done, and correctly so; paradigm shifts are seen as too challenging, disruptive, or politically difficult. To put it simply: it’s easier to just keep operating the way we always have. Now, the only thing stopping the government from moving beyond the status quo and making positive changes is the continued belief that it should go back to the way it always was. That is a mistake.
Covid-19, for all of its tragedy, has presented governments with a golden opportunity to reform how and where it works. It would be too be if we simply go back to the way it’s always been.
Mr. Richardson is the former director of digital operations to Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe.