How do we future proof ourselves? This is the key question as we reflect on recent challenges and look to the future.
It was my pleasure to host a session at Civil Service Live 2020 online where, with a panel of experts, we tackled tricky topics such as:
- what preparing for Brexit has taught us about preparing for the future;
- how Covid-19 has changed our ways of working and what that means for how we’ll operate from now on;
- what smarter working really means and how we can embrace it so we can be a modern Civil Service; and
- how automation is advancing rapidly and changing citizen expectations and our internal processes.
Like many colleagues, I take upskilling seriously and I encourage my teams to adapt, experiment and continually learn. But these changes are impacting us all and they teach us new things like how we need to be armed with the right skills and be prepared for whatever comes next.
The expert panel consisted of: Matthew Davies, Deputy Director for Civil Service Employee Policy; Gerri Clement, Programme Director for Relocation Programme; Julie Aldgate, Strategic Cabinet Office Estates lead; and Katie Rhodes, Senior Policy Advisor, Government Automation. It was such an interesting session and I have pulled out the top four emerging themes and asked the panelists to contribute to this blog.
By way of summary, here are our top four highlights.
- Naturally, our professional skills remained important during Covid-19 but interestingly during the national response, a number of additional ‘softer’ skills were recognised as critically important by government departments. In some cases they were even more important than technical skills. These included resilience, pace to respond to changing demands, quickly adapting to cover additional areas of work and working immediately more collaboratively across government organisations and professional teams. It was necessary in most Covid-19 related roles to work with colleagues from estates, health, HR, projects, communications, and more. Networks became more valuable than ever. It was evident in behaviour and results that the most effective decision-making was taking place when networks were used to inform recommendations and therefore based upon information from a range of colleagues. In addition, leaders were in demand who could provide tailored support on inclusion and wellbeing so that teams could run at full strength remotely. Leaders who communicated well, recognised the challenges, led by example and were adaptable to new challenges were needed by many departments because these were unprecedented times.
- The Brexit preparations spanned all departments and as we ensured the country was ready to leave the EU, there were a number of skills in demand across government. These included primarily skills in operational delivery, programme and project management, commercial, policy and analytics. In addition, there was a need for people to work out of usual office hours. Naturally, now we are working on Brexit transition and these skills demands remain broadly the same but of equal importance are behaviours. This is where the new success profiles are a helpful resource. When people work at pace they need to draw from their expertise but they also need to be able to change and improve, adapt quickly, be proactive, not always wait for permission and focus on outcomes. The skills leaders needed centred around being able to develop themselves in a new area swiftly and to enable and encourage others to do the same. The same rules didn’t always apply. And strong communication skills and recognition of sensitivities were a fundamental requirement of everyone moving into Brexit roles. Checking understanding, being clear, recognising differing strengths, recapping, regularly checking in and supporting staff to communicate their contributions clearly towards departmental and central objectives - these were all key to successful day to day operations.
- In order to understand Smarter Working we need to change our focus on the word ‘work’ and move from thinking of it as a place we attend, to thinking of it is an activity that we do. Smarter working at its very basic level is about the organisation giving staff permission to work in flexible ways; to choose where best to work and when - location, flexible working, start and finish times. It is not just about sometimes working at home rather than in an office, it is a fundamental change in our ways of working where we look at the range of tasks we have to deliver and consider what environment we need to be in to deliver those tasks. To prepare ourselves for the future shape of the Civil Service, we must adapt to smarter working becoming the norm enabled by changing our office spaces and how we use them; robust technology; effective leadership and key support toolkits for all staff being comfortable working in touch-down zones, collaboration spaces, offices, home and hubs. By giving staff ‘permission’ to have influence over their working day it empowers them to have a sense of control over their life. There is a very strong link between smarter working and trust and behaviours. Covid-19 immediately stopped the majority of us having to be in an office five days a week. As we look to the immediate and long term future we are already building on the lessons learned from Covid-19, thinking about how business can be delivered more flexibly; recognising that not everyone’s circumstances supports working at home and that effectively supporting staff along with a culture change is key to this being successful.
- With advancements in automation happening at pace, there are three key areas where we can identify skills needed for the future: compassion and empathy; productivity; and mindset and culture. McKinsey published a report on the impact automation will have on the workforce predicting an increase in demand for technical skills but also for social, emotional and creative skills. This is because humans are uniquely able to give and receive compassion and empathy which is what differentiates us from automation and AI, and can really help us to deliver personalised services to citizens. Automation can carry out routine tasks, allowing us as humans to be creative, compassionate and empathetic. So this combination of people and automation creates the best outcomes. Secondly, the British public is accustomed to instantaneous service delivery through our one-click consumerism culture, this comes with heightened expectations that government will transact with citizens in a similar way. We therefore must equip our teams and organisations with the best tools and systems to optimise service delivery and the citizen experience. Thirdly, our mindset and culture should embrace the new norm where experimentation, creativity and innovation are standard. This involves leadership at all levels, not just line managers and should form part of every project and task so we’re continuing to advance, modernise, upskill and become the resilient workforce that is required in the modern world.