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How the pandemic could change working for governments around the world

Six observations for 2021 and the return to office life
By Alex Massey, Adam King, Simon Lowe, Vicky Smith, Ed Roddis

When coronavirus was officially designated a global pandemic in March last year, governments moved fast to protect their citizens. Their priority was to save lives by suppressing the spread of the virus, and central to that approach was encouraging people to work from home where possible. Of course, governments are not just the arbiters of lockdowns – they are major employers as well – and as such, they managed their own mass transitions to remote working.This New Year has begun with a fresh round of lockdown restrictions in many countries. But as vaccination programmes raise hopes for a return to normal life, governments are increasingly thinking through the legacy of coronavirus on their ways of working. Based on our observations and conversations with public officials around the world, this article explores six lessons for the much-anticipated return to office life for governments in 2021.

When governments around the world shut their offices in March, officials shifted to remote working at scale with surprisingly limited disruption. In many cases, the central challenge was securing sufficient hardware to make working at home possible. In Australia for example, payments agency Services Australia bought 19,000 laptops in just two months to support its staff mobility and business continuity needs.1 Where hardware was in place, governments ramped up their use of collaborative technologies to great effect. In Canada, the number of minutes of teleconferencing across federal government tripled to five million minutes per day within weeks of lockdown.2

Inevitably, some organisations and some nations started from lower bases than others. Research from Eurostat shows that 14.1 per cent of employees in the Netherlands and Finland typically worked from home before the pandemic, compared to 3.6 per cent in Italy and just 1.9 per cent in Greece, reflecting differences in working cultures and local laws.3 Legislation in Finland, for example, already gave workers significant freedoms on when and where they work.4

It’s right to celebrate how well governments shifted to remote working, coping with upheavals across their facilities management, technology, communications, human resources and more within days. But as a lesson in transformation, it’s important to recognise that this change took place at a cliff edge, with few alternatives and no time to review options. As US political scientist John Kingdon famously acknowledged, crises and disasters are ‘focusing events’ that stimulate rapid action in government – and COVID-19 has certainly done that.

The shift to remote working was not the only transformation in governments as they dealt with the virus. Many fast-tracked decision-making processes, broadened their risk appetites and accelerated digital change programmes to help fight the pandemic. Remote working tools like Zoom, Teams and Skype may well have played a part in those wider changes by encouraging crisper meetings and providing a better platform for all voices to be heard.

There are countless takeaways from the way governments changed gear as they battled COVID-19. But ultimately, the experience has been a proof of concept that workforce transformation is within the grasp of every government, and those that want to pursue new people strategies could well find their workforce innately receptive to new ways of working in the months ahead.

However, genuine transformation never succeeds without tenacity and determination. Sir Michael Barber – best known for leading the UK Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit under Tony Blair – once observed that change needs to last beyond its initial investment of energy from leaders in order to become established and irreversible. That’s why governments that want to pursue major change in the months ahead will need to lock in the boldness they drew upon at the outset of this crisis. They will need to rethink what the status quo looks like. And they will need to engage at depth with employees and unions to deliver a working environment that balances productivity, value for taxpayers’ money and wellbeing.

While lockdowns eased over the summer of 2020, office workers did not return to their workplaces in significant numbers. Even when the UK government advised that employees could go back to their offices in August, footfall in London increased by just two per cent.5

While the hugely encouraging news about vaccines has given hope for a return to greater normality this year, there is still no single view on when offices could or should reopen. While that is true of every sector of the economy, governments face two differentiating pressures in terms of a return to office working.

First, governments are subject to considerable parliamentary and media scrutiny. That became evident in New Zealand last year after the capital city’s chamber of commerce and Member of Parliament highlighted the economic impact on the city centre’s businesses of civil servants working from home.
Second, as every nation’s authority on COVID-19, businesses could begin to look to governments to set the pace on return to the office. When civil servants return to their offices in greater numbers, businesses may well follow their lead – and that could be a useful trigger if governments need it.

A consensus appears to be emerging among local and central government leaders that the return to offices will be a balancing act between the efficiency of remote meetings versus the geniality of meeting in person, between reduced commuter revenue for transport systems versus employee work-life balance, between managerial oversight versus the danger of presentism, and more. Securing the right balance across all of these dimensions will be key to the future of work.

While last year’s sudden shift to working from home is widely acknowledged as a success, the challenges of longer term remote working are becoming increasingly apparent. Deloitte’s own survey of homeworkers found that almost half miss the social interaction of their workplaces, a third feel physical workspaces lend themselves better to collaboration and a quarter can network more easily in the office.6 As governments and other employers consider a longer-term shift to flexible working, these issues form the start of a long list of considerations.

The starting point for many employers grappling with longer-term strategies will be productivity, and perspectives on the impact of remote working differ wildly. In Canada, Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos announced that productivity increased for many federal workers at home. In contrast, Indonesia’s Administrative and Bureaucratic Reform Minister Tjahjo Kumolo told reporters that he was developing a strategy to remove unproductive civil servants who were placing a higher burden on their colleagues during the lockdown.

Stanford University research into productivity found that employees at home made more calls than those in offices – perhaps inevitably – but they reported higher levels of job satisfaction, had less distractions like commuting, took fewer days off sick and found it easier to concentrate.7 Ultimately research suggests that the defining factor in productivity is not whether employees are in an office or not, but whether they are engaged.

Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends 2020 argues that organisations that can remain distinctly human in our technology-driven world will be more able to engage their people. See the report here for practical takeaways on how organisations can enhance their innate humanity.

After employee costs, the biggest cost for most public sector employers is their real estate. In the UK for example, annual operating costs for the central government estate were £2.61 billion at last count.  Cross-government efforts have reduced those costs by 37 per cent since 2010, equalling some £1.6 billion, and the scale of savings like that explain why governments around the world are considering game changing choices about their office space.

If remote working is here to stay – even to a significant residual extent – governments will not need such extensive office space. The Canadian government has already made clear that it is reflecting on its post-pandemic office needs and the Welsh government is actively encouraging its public sector to explore more extensive remote working on a permanent basis.

However, few commentators are recognising the complexity of these choices. For employees, one size does not fit all. People vary in their appetites to return to offices, and public sector employers need to think about the interoperability within teams, between teams, across departments and between agencies and their suppliers. Organisations will struggle to succeed if their working methods hamper their connectivity to the systems in which they operate. Getting interoperability right will mean managing physical space, technology, processes and culture to make sure that people are working together even if their working worlds begin to diverge.

The impact of real estate choices has wider implications than the workforce itself. As the experience in New Zealand illustrates, most government departments are located in cities and thousands of government workers staying away has affected city centre economies and urban transport systems.

The post-pandemic choices that governments face on office space need to be overlaid on existing plans to move civil servants out of their nations’ capitals. The governments of New Zealand and the UK were already planning to relocate thousands of civil servants in outlying regions to help boost local economies. But instead of asking whether those workers need to be in capital cities, the new and more difficult dilemma is whether they need to be in offices at all.Of course, these choices need to be seen as long-term shifts. Many office buildings are leased for decades and governments are not likely to be able to reconfigure their entire office estate in the short term.

The dominant working hypothesis is that office workers will be increasingly expected to use offices for specific purposes, such as creative collaboration, face-to-face training, agile working in multi-disciplinary teams, team-building, onboarding new joiners and other events that are best undertaken in person. By contrast, time spent on focused tasks that require concentration may be better spent at home – and that hypothesis has significant implications for workplace design and real estate requirements.

Deloitte’s experience in supporting public sector clients with real estate choices suggests that agencies should assess their future needs by establishing a Minimum Viable Footprint that identifies the needs of its operational efficiency, staff well-being and optimal client experience while meeting regulatory requirements. That Minimum Viable Footprint will show the scale of benefits and the strategic choices available – whether palatable or not – and inform a set of design principles for organisational design. Crucially, real estate choices need to be enablers of organisational transformation rather than the driver. Agencies need to be able to deliver their mission, first and foremost.

Commentators rightly note that technology, and not least the technology used for remote working, has taken a leap forward during the pandemic lockdown. While digital products helped us stay out of offices, they are also supporting our return, with platforms like GoSpaces helping workers in Canada book socially-distanced desks, check sanitization and identify themselves as vulnerable if required. However, beyond technological progress, cultural progress has also accelerated in workplaces around the world over the same timescale.

Most enlightened public sector employers had already taken steps to promote well-being, mental health and greater openness in the workplace long before COVID-19. That will have paid unknown dividends during lockdown, when many employers took additional steps to encourage positive environments, supportive internal conversations and good work-life balances as their people began working remotely. Governments around the world launched well-being initiatives as enthusiastically as guidance on remote working when lockdowns began.

In recent months, employers across all sectors have also elevated the importance of diversity in the workplace as well, triggered by the Black Lives Matter movement and the debate it has driven. While COVID-19 did not cause that shift, it has added a further acceleration to cultural change in workplaces around the world – all of which need to be part of decision making as governments assess their workforce and workplace needs for the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown just how adaptable people – and organisations – can be. As governments mobilised to address the crisis, they relaxed rules and regulations to maximise the agility of their responses and those of businesses. In the US, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission were among the agencies that moved fast to adapt rules around recruitment and ways of working.8 In the UK, scrutiny and approval processes around spending decisions in the public sector were relaxed to allow for greater speed in response to the COVID-19 emergency.9 Around the world, agencies flexed according to need.

As public bodies began to respond to the pandemic, employees were regularly mobilised away from their usual job to meet urgent needs, and in the midst of these mobilisations, barriers to rapid redeployment became apparent. Organisations that struggled to resource sudden demands often found that they had no clear sight on capabilities in their organisation, could not match people with business need because of a lack of capability frameworks, lacked procedures to support re-deployment or came up against budget or payment restrictions.

Most redeployment of this kind has taken place within organisations, but some has seen people operating across organisational boundaries. In Ireland, for example, more than 1,000 public sector workers were redeployed from health agencies and universities to support contact tracing.10 The potential for adaptability in the public sector workforce is multiplied if it operates across the system rather than within the walls of one organisation.

The lesson in resilience here is that government departments and agencies should make sure they map their capabilities and establish mechanisms to better facilitate redeployment in the future, whether it is needed in the interests of dealing with a crisis or simply to make the most of transferable capabilities. Better still, those frameworks and mechanisms could be established across systems. A federal government or civil service that was able to share common frameworks for understanding their peoples’ skills and common mechanisms for moving them across every department of state could become exponentially more agile. Either way, HR leaders will need to be the drivers that make this change happen and sustain the networks that facilitate adaptability over time.

Government responses to the pandemic have also provided a lesson in adaptable collaboration, both between departments and agencies, and across the public and private sectors – and not just in nations with long histories of cross-sector working. In China, private estate management companies have deployed staff on duties that ranged from testing temperatures to delivering groceries, and the country’s tracing app was developed with online retailer Alibaba.11

Around the world, the scale of the crisis meant that governments moved fast to engage suppliers that could support the urgent healthcare response, deliver protective equipment, establish testing systems, advise on the economic response and more. That may not shift the ideological positions of those that believe the public sector should never engage the private sector in its delivery. But it shows how government can be adaptable and agile enough to convene the support it needs from beyond the public sector to deliver large-scale programmes in the national interest.

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