Taking a team approach to building a flexible work culture within the public sector can maintain or improve outcomes for individuals and groups within agencies as well as for their customers, a new report has found.
The research, sponsored by the New South Wales Public Service Commission, was the result of a three-year program to support flexible working in the state government.
The program came about after former premier Mike Baird flagged the need to allow roles across the government sector to be made flexible on an “if not, why not” basis. In response, the NSW Public Service Commission established a flexible working team, and embarked on a project to design and test team-based flexible working pilots.
The program saw 837 people from across 14 different contexts participate, including road maintenance crews, civil lawyers working in Aboriginal communities, health infrastructure planners, human resources professionals, human services policy experts, and environment policy experts.
The participants formed teams, which then designed their own flexible working pilots using two different approaches.
The first approach, ‘team-based design’, had each team come together to co-design their flexibility trial, and was used in both office and frontline service delivery environments over three to five months.
This approach worked well with small teams that “have an appetite to challenge the status quo of how they currently plan and arrange their work”, the report noted. A total of 10 teams and 400 employees took the first approach.
The second pilot, ‘systems-based design’, empowered leaders to “change their role as a gatekeeper of flexible working requests in their team system”. Leaders designed a pilot that guided what could and couldn’t be done for using informal flexible working within their workplace, the report noted.
“This builds agency and autonomy for employees, while managers lead by example. It is particularly effective for large or geographically dispersed teams and areas, where there is a need for strong leadership,” it said.
The systems-based design approach was used in office-based environments over three months, and had 437 employees spread across four teams participate.
Results overwhelmingly positive
The research identified “strong evidence” of a shift in both team and leader support for flexible working as a result of the pilot program, and “teams were more supportive and cooperative about working flexibly”.
About half of employees felt that their teammates strongly supported flexible working after the intervention, the report noted. Participants also found that rethinking their approach to when and how work should be done can maintain or improve service delivery while also supporting work-life balance.
“The opportunity for flex work has shown that staff in our team are more motivated and trusted by management,” one participant said.
“Staff feel less stressed by having shorter commutes and more time for personal and family matters, including caring roles.”
A number of survey questions looked at team support for flexible working. Before the pilot, 17% of respondents strongly agreed with having an effective system for organising and planning work to enable flexibility in how, when or where work is done. That number more than doubled to 38% post-pilot.
Teams being flexible and prepared to adjust how, or when, work is undertaken to get a job done increased by 21 percentage points, from 27% strongly agreeing pre-pilot to 48% post-pilot, while feeling that they could access flexibility for any reason trebled, from 12% strongly agreeing pre-pilot to 37% post-pilot.
Teams working effectively together to deliver work objectives increased by 12 percentage points, from 37% strongly agreeing before the pilot to 49% after the pilot. Employees reporting they had the flexibility they needed to meet work and family personal commitments doubled, from 26% pre-pilot to 52% post-pilot.
One major challenge noted by the teams was the reliability of technology — or lack thereof — when working in a location out of the office.
“Technology wasn’t strong enough to handle working from home,” one participant said.
“We can’t offer strong customer service if the phones keep dropping off.”
There were also changes in employee perceptions of leaders. Before the pilot, 44% believed their leader was strongly supportive of flexible working. That figure went up to 63% post-pilot.
While 38% said their leader was an effective role model for flexible work prior to the program, 52% thought that was the case after the program. Finally, 45% of people thought their leaders were sensitive to the demands of their personal and family life pre-pilot, which went up to 56% post-pilot.
Program lead Siobhan Brahe, a principal advisor at the NSW Public Service Commission, said she was surprised by the overwhelmingly positive results.
“Designing flexibility into the way the team works is incredibly effective, far more so than the more traditional approach where individual employees have to make a ‘business proposal’ to their manager,” she said.
“The best thing about this is that we’ve been able to release DIY toolkits based on these results just when agencies and departments need to take an innovative approach to designing the new normal.”
The toolkits can be used by agencies to design their own flexible work trials based on the principles of the pilots.
The findings have come after a huge slice of the state’s public sector workforce moved to remote working arrangements in response to the coronavirus pandemic.