How is government shaping up to flexible working? Here at Flexibility
we know there's an increasing amount of interest from managers, staff
and policy-makers in government bodies - we can tell that from the
registrations for our newsletters and in the emails we get.
evidence comes in the recent online debate organised by the Public
Policy Forum, a BT-sponsored body that hopes to accelerate the process
of modernisation in public bodies. The debate, called "Click, Debate,
Connect: Fit for Work" took place entirely over the Internet, and
brought together some 300 people who registered to take part. The
participants included people from the public, private and academic
The debate brought out examples of the barriers to flexible work in
the public sector, as well as examples of the benefits. Coming in for
particular criticism in the report of the debate (see information box
on the right) are the culture of the public sector:
"The public sector has a rigid, slow-changing culture that
does not lend itself to flexible working. A culture of central
control means managers feel they need to be in close control of
their teams and there is a perception that this is far easier if the
team is constantly present between the hours of 9 –5.In local
government in particular, efforts towards flexible working are in
danger of being undermined by a lack of understanding of the
benefits it offers"
"There is a need for flexible working to be viewed across all
government policy aims, from environmental targets to transport
policy. Departmentalism makes this tough. What we saw in the debate
were several small-scale pilots but an absence of real commitment to
make it happen on a larger scale".
So solutions have to focus in particular on changing mindsets, and
in having a "holistic"
approach. At the moment, modernisation often focuses on large-scale IT
projects ( - many of them of dubious value, we fear). The kind of
changes to working practices which need to accompany new approaches to
But, the report argues, it's government policy already - even if
the practice is a little slow to follow. And from April 2003, there
will be new rights to request flexible working for people with caring
responsibilities. It would be ironic if the response to this from the
government employers were slower than from the private sector.
Ten Top Tips
One stream of the debate asked for participants top tips to make
flexible working successful. The summarisers have come up with the
following list (- for further detail download the summary report):
- Agree a clear strategy – as with any project, senior
managers need to state their current practices, aims and the
transition issues between them, a possible course of action and a
- Health and safety first – protect home workers by
ensuring their remote work stations are ergonomically sound.
- Be responsive to home life as well as work goals – not
everyone is inclined to work from home because of space,
distractions or a need for company. Flexible working means operating
from anywhere, not just at home.
- Face-to-face: a crucial part of the mix – while remote
working can be highly productive, sometimes face-to-face meetings
- Home workers are team members too – help them to develop
personal relationships with their colleagues through meetings,
email, telephone conversations and chat rooms.
- Management review: the doubter as contributor – the move
from “presenteeism” to output-based working which accompanies
flexible working is often more difficult for managers than for staff
but if resistance is tackled early, doubters can be persuaded to
contribute ideas rather than objections.
- Guidance and appraisal (don’t put them off for life) –
all public sector employers should ensure their employees who work
flexibly are supported and trained to cope with their different
working environment and adequate appraisal systems should be
- Flexible working is not a skiver’s paradise – by
establishing clear policies for all available working options,
managers can prevent both flexible workers and those still based in
the office from perceiving flexible working as an easy option.
- Flexible working should not be a hacker’s paradise – so
security policies should be extended to flexible working
arrangements and staff should have these written into their
- Allow time for ‘unproductive’ activities – these help to
bolster morale and increase a sense of community. Not all
communication between remote workers must be task-oriented and
schedules should be generous enough to allow more informal
We leave the final word to Fred Perkins, chair of the Public Policy
Forum and chief operating officer at The Stationery Office:
“Flexible working seems finally to be moving from rhetoric into
reality. There are examples in the private sector where benefits
from flexible working have genuinely been delivered to both employee
With the public sector more committed than ever to embrace
ICT-enabled transformation, we hope the report findings help public
sector organisations see it as opportunity, rather than challenge.
We've gathered together some key elements of practical support,
essential in trying to deliver to an increasingly demanding public.”
You can download the report from here:
(pdf file - 82kb)
Public Policy Forum was set up in November 2000 to
bring together leading public policy and decision makers with
independent experts, think tanks, academics and successful
industry figures to identify and address the modernisation of
government and the improvement of public services.
The Forum is backed by the Innovation Research Centre at
Lancaster University Management School.