Australia’s public sector agencies were foremost in the transition to remote working during the first coronavirus lockdowns. Yet, as the Covid-19 situation continues to unfold, agency staff are finding themselves increasingly challenged in this ‘new normal’ operating environment.
Many have found that the inefficiencies of virtual collaboration and agencies’ often laggard adoption of supporting technology infrastructure have reduced productivity and, in many cases, diminished their capacity to enact meaningful change and produce results efficiently.
Agency heads are now rapidly working towards both short- and long-term adaptive strategies to fast-track digital transformation initiatives that can meet changing workforce demands. It is hoped these efforts will enable more productive remote work, effective collaboration, as well as the good health and wellbeing of employees.
FST Government’s recent virtual panel, Adapting to new ways of working in the times of a global pandemic: The public sector perspective, explored adaptive strategies taken by Victoria’s public agencies to overcome operational, process, and logistical challenges encountered in remote working environments. Panellists highlighted efforts to maintain continuous productivity during this period of rapid adaptation and change.
Here, we explore some of the key insights discussed during the session.
- Chris Moon, Chief Information Officer, Board Secretary & Corporate, Environment Protection Authority Victoria
- Elizabeth Wilson, Chief Information Officer, Department of Education and Training – Victoria
- Lisa Tepper, Executive Director – Enterprise Solutions, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Victoria
- John Asquith, Head of Innovation for Government, ServiceNow
Moderator: Paul Cooper
Prefacing the discussion, participants revealed critical challenges faced by Victoria’s government departments in virtual collaboration environments. Many have found that the shift to teleconferencing has yielded less than productive engagements, whilst also exposing the limitations of virtualised workspaces in replicating real-world, face-to-face human contacts.
Several participants were surprised at the ease with which their departments adapted to the initial transition to remote work. Despite this, however, since Victoria’s recent shift into a second lockdown phase, there is greater urgency to implement more suitable tools and processes that can allow teams to collaborate with greater ease.
Many participants felt that while virtual collaboration has significant merit over the short-term, there was concern over their team’s ability to effectively collaborate within virtual spaces on a long-term basis.
Chris Moon, chief information officer, board secretary & corporate at the Environment Protection Authority in Victoria, felt “true collaboration sessions… become very challenging to do in a remote environment”.
His department is currently analysing a range of appropriate tools such as Yammer, Cardboard, and Mero, to ensure his team can work towards achieving more productive collaboration sessions over the next few months.
Embracing human connection in the next phase of the pandemic
Beyond the obvious physiological and economic toll of the coronavirus, mental health has degraded markedly since the onset of the Covid lockdowns. Beyond Blue, an Australian mental health advocacy group, has recorded a 30 per cent increase in calls since social restrictions came into force.
Several participants recognised the importance of supporting staff health and wellbeing during this challenging period of adjustment. To meet these challenges, participants emphasised a need for greater workplace flexibility, encouraging leaders to be sympathetic to employees’ increased stress loads and to support more flexible working hours where required.
Lisa Tepper, executive director of enterprise solutions at the Department of Premier and Cabinet stressed that “as much flexibility as possible should be provided to people”.
She suggested that such flexibility could be particularly relevant for individuals that had, for instance, school-aged children at home or in circumstances where they are required to work outside normal business hours.
Elizabeth Wilson, chief information officer at the Department of Education and Training agreed, insisting that such flexibility should “enable [staff] to do what they need to do in their personal lives, as well as contribute to work”.
Participants also discussed the need to replicate real-world relationships virtually, in an effort to strengthen the close bonds that not only allow for successful and efficient collaboration but also spur innovation.
Staff did not want “a world where they never go into the office,” Wilson stressed. In fact, her staff had expressed their continued desire to “physically interact” with one another – experiences that offer meaningful and invaluable social interactions during their working lives.
Chris Moon concurred:
“People are missing that connectivity to their colleagues; that ability to have that passing conversation with somebody in the kitchen which picks up on what’s going on in the organisation.”
Several participants revealed experiments within their agencies with digital solutions that seek to replicate real-world encounters and increase social contact among employees. These include, for instance, virtual “coffee roulette”, a random employee matching game, or “fireside chats”.
It was hoped these virtual initiatives could foster or maintain the human connections staff felt they were missing in virtual spaces. Time will tell whether these solutions yield the desired result.
Adapting flexible workplace strategies
Government agencies often have a reputation as laggard and often reluctant innovators. Yet, the lockdowns appear to have spurred a push for greater workforce flexibility and faster technology adoption.
The advantages of a more flexible workforce have become undeniable, participants said, with Tepper expressing the hope that upper management will remain as obliging and responsive to change once the pandemic abates.
For Tepper, the pandemic has highlighted “an ability to demonstrate that things can be done quickly if people work together in an adaptive way”.
Throughout the pandemic, senior leaders have accepted they must sacrifice perfection to deliver at pace. For Tepper, this increasingly flexible attitude has enabled greater efficiency within her organisation, allowing teams to implement change quickly.
Technology partners have also served as critical enablers for high-speed adoption of new processes and as aids for efficient decision making.
John Asquith, head of innovation for government at ServiceNow, observed how tools implemented by his team were “enabling organisations to really innovate at speed”.
“The consequences of being able to solve some of those problems at such a rapid pace… is going to be transformational in its own right”
– John Asquith
Asquith went on to predict that, when taking the capabilities of current technologies into consideration, this rate of change will only increase.
“I think we’re likely to see the pace of change ramp up even more,” he said.
Wilson agreed, describing to the panel how her department had worked to roll out the Working for Victoria website, a government-hosted jobseeker site, within just a week. Her department also helped distribute more than 61,000 devices and 21,000 internet dongles to students within two to three weeks.
Training and education for teachers, however, was cited as the biggest issue for Wilson’s team; yet, she concedes that technology partners were crucial in easing the transition to remote learning.
“That ability for our tech partners to work with teachers… and to teach them how to use those tools in a remote working environment has been invaluable,” she said.
Wilson said her strong relationships with suppliers and technology partners were her team’s saving grace, enabling the rapid deployment of programs and training sessions. This ensured teachers were trained and ready to launch programs that could enable teaching from home.
Momentum towards meaningful collaboration
As Victoria heads into its second lockdown, it is crucial that both public and private sectors embrace new technologies more readily and adapt to any program updates along the way.
Tepper recognised that there has been a cultural shift towards embracing the efficient adoption of new technologies.
She sees this as integral to the Victorian public service and is hopeful that this mindset shift will “allow [agencies] to maintain this momentum in terms of adapting and using technology more effectively across the government.”
At the same time, the panel indicated that it was crucial that, through this process, management teams are not leaving anyone behind.
Incorporating technology and processes that are digitally inclusive, and supporting and upskilling those without access or adequate digital literacy, is critical for fully functioning and collaborative teams.
Moon stressed the need for digital remote working initiatives to actively support those who may lack digital wherewithal.
“We have people who have never owned a smartphone up until recently and therefore they’re not used to that adaption. We have to develop our training and our support … with the capability to meet those individual needs”
– Chris Moon
Finally, panellists shed light on leaders’ strategies to increase efficiency and collaboration within the public service. In an effort to improve productivity, Wilson suggests reviewing agencies’ strict chain of command structure, ensuring every employee is able to make decisions efficiently and have their voices heard.
Wilson drove home the importance of “making sure decisions can be made where they need to be… rather than funnelling every decision upwards.”
She furthermore emphasised the importance of changing the way success is measured in the workplace. For Wilson, success should be determined by outcome not process.
The Department of Education CIO proposes a strongly data-backed review process – one that strictly examines output rather than wasting resources tediously tracking how that output is achieved or, indeed, the number of hours worked. She suggests “measuring performance on the value add… not on any other means.”
John Asquith agreed: “Data is the difference. It gives everyone the opportunity to perform and be recognised and be rewarded.”