Associate feature: Public sector eyes hybrid working opportunities
After a year spent largely stuck at home, the success of the vaccination programme across the UK has also brought a dose of optimism as society looks to reopen.
For businesses, this means thinking not only about reopening offices, but also how to reopen them.
The post-COVID office environment was a key point of discussion in Holyrood Connect’s recent roundtable discussion sponsored by Fortinet and SCC, which gathered IT specialists from a cross-section of Scotland’s public sector organisations.
As David McKeand, Fortinet’s account manager for Scotland, put it: “We’ve transitioned a lot of workers to remote working over the last year. I think probably just as big a challenge is going to be transitioning everyone back into the into the office again – not just from mental health point of view, but also just from, you know, the people doing daily commutes and bringing laptops that we provided to them back into the office again, that challenge as well.
“Then going on that, looking at office environments and how they are going to change. You know if we do end up providing flexible working for a lot of staff, then do we have to look at office environments and how they are going to transition as well in terms of meeting pods and hot desking and stuff like that.”
The direction of travel for many of the organisations involved in the roundtable is to enable a more hybrid way of working.
Surveys have revealed many staff want to remain working at home post-pandemic, but some are desperate to be back in an office and others want a mixture of both. This comes with the challenge of ensuring teams can work together efficiently across a range of environments.
Aaron Kandyba, an account manager at SCC, said: “The reality is that when people come back to the office, it's likely going to be a hybrid scenario whereby some people are in the meeting room and some people are at home and it's going to be quite important that those people at home have got the same quality of meeting as the people who are face-to-face in the office and that's going to be a challenge around some of the technologies that people use.”
Some organisations have already started to consider how to ensure this.
Garry Scobie, the deputy chief information security officer at Edinburgh University, explained: “We did a survey, just over 5,000 people responded and out of that nine out of 10 wanted to continue with some form of hybrid working when things get back to a more normal situation. On the basis of that, we are now working towards putting together a more formal framework and policies and procedures and all that kind of stuff to actually support this because it’s the way the organisation and staff appear to want to go.”
Whether or not that hybrid working will continue long after the pandemic, at least initially organisations will need to be flexible as public health restrictions are relaxed but not fully lifted. This means not everyone will return to the office immediately.
Neill Smith, the Scottish government’s head of IT infrastructure, highlighted that even if social distancing requirements are relaxed to one metre, rooms which would previously have accommodated large groups will now only accommodate a small number of people.
Spaces will therefore need to be altered to enable hybrid meetings.
He said: “Technology is going to play a key part, particularly when we're back in the office, because we're not going to go from one day everyone’s homeworking [to] everyone back in the office. There's going to be that hybrid, separate piece, so we're going to have to embrace that kind of collaborative hybrid approach in terms of people working from home, people in the office and how we're going to communicate and move forward.”
Unlike many organisations, Aberdeenshire Council regularly conducted hybrid meetings pre-pandemic.
According to the council’s IT Manager, Chris Cleland, many organisations may find hybrid meetings more challenging than those conducted entirely virtually.
Cleland argued that this is partly down to the issue of equity – with meetings tending to be dominated by those in the actual meeting room at the expense of those attending virtually. Cleland was interested to see whether this issue of equity will lead organisations to shift to smaller, decentralised meetings as a solution.
For many public services, there is also the issue of ensuring any changes are cognisant of the different needs of frontline and behind-the-scenes staff. Nigel Ironside, head of digital services at the Scottish Prison Service, said IT infrastructure must reflect that not everyone can work from home.
He added: “The hands-on operational delivery of running an establishment 24/7 – just like healthcare environment or a care environment or anything else – requires people on the ground so there’s that real recognition around how do you therefore provide a digital inclusive service that reflects those individuals too and not just those at home … how do we meld and provide that sense of inclusiveness to those who are having to be frontline?”
Naturally, the move to working from home so rapidly also came with problems which will still need to be addressed.
For Ironside this has been the reliance on paper records – particularly warrant management records – within his organisation.
Digitisation of these paper documents is critical to the success of remote working across many public sector organisations.
To manage the transition effectively SPS collaborated with Registers of Scotland who had recently completed its own digitisation process. Through this collaboration Ironside discovered that many of the challenges faced, are less technological than about changing staff culture and ways of working.
But how do you change your staff culture when you can’t meet face to face?
Gerry Grant started in his role as cyber security manager at NHS Tayside during lockdown last year and he spoke about the extra effort required to build relationships with colleagues you’ve never met. He asked: “How do we introduce new starts into this hybrid model? How do we make them feel part of the team?”
And Isabel McKnight, COO at Stirling Council, spoke about how moving online can foster an always-on work culture which can risk staff burnout.
She revealed steps taken by the council: “We decided that Fridays were down days. We had no meetings on a Friday whatsoever. No scheduled meetings across the council and a two-hour window where everyone between 12 and 2 had that opportunity to have a break.”
Meanwhile, cybersecurity remains an ongoing challenge for all organisations due to the increased risk that comes with homeworking. The solutions to this are both upgrading security, such as greater use of multi-factor authentication or rolling out automated data loss prevention systems, and increasing staff awareness without overburdening them.
Scott Barnett, the head of information and cyber security at NHS National Services Scotland, put it best: “Security needs to be almost like the electricity in your house. If people are working from home, security has got to be built in. It’s got to be frictionless. It’s got to be pretty much seamless and invisible to the user … When we're rolling out these new technologies, which are super exciting, we have to be cognisant of the fact that we can’t ask people to go above and beyond what they would normally do in the course of their business … The onus is on us to provide that security securely rather than putting the onus on the end user.”
For Andy Ross, Head of ICT at Dundee & Angus College the most important objective was supporting remote learning. Traditionally ICT had acted as a blocker to remote working but during the pandemic it needed to rapidly shift to an enabling role. A key element of the College’s success in this regard was its focus on security, particularly a swift rollout of multi-factor authentication. By prioritising security at an early stage the College was able to have confidence in its remote learning strategy.
However, a big challenge the public sector needs to overcome with security is recruitment. As Neil Smith said: “Everyone’s after the cloud experts and the security experts are high in demand and generally in the ecosystem of IT, public sector is maybe not the most attractive.”
But there are opportunities to free up budgets that would previously have been spent on office space as people take advantage of hybrid working opportunities and the pandemic has proved the public sector can be more agile than previously thought.
Smith admitted: “We're slow to change in the government. Sometimes we can be a bit resistant to making change, so the pandemic’s made us embrace a more innovative, collaborative style approach and allowing that space to fail, because sometimes it was almost that slow waterfall-esque method which would actually hold us back.”
He added: “It's about the culture and the environment. If you allow your people to be able to experiment and innovate then, you know, a happy person is a productive person.”
Aaron Kandyba agreed, suggesting strategies need to be put in place to ensure the benefits of the last year continue. He said: “Over the last 12 months people have made probably quite significant investments in their collaboration strategies at quite a rapid rate, making fast decisions. It will be interesting to see whether those investments and technologies they've adopted form part of their future collaboration strategy moving forward.”
Overall, the roundtable participants were aware of the challenges ahead. Moving to hybrid working in a way the suits organisations, staff and security requirements brings various problems that will need to be tackled quickly as Scotland leaves lockdown over the summer months.
But there was also a great deal of optimism in the virtual room about using this challenge to create something transformational.
Matthew Walker, the sales manager of networking and security from SCC, said: “A lot of organisations are seeing this as a real opportunity to fundamentally shift and change the way of working for the better … It's looking at how we actually get the job done, how we actually cater for the organisation, for the people within that organisation, as we as we move forward … I think that we've all got to try and take a benefit or a positive from how we'll end up working going forward.”