The collective response of the Australian Public Service (APS) to the COVID-19 pandemic was managerially, structurally, and collectively comprehensive. The threat was immediate and tangible, and the response was quick and decisive. APS leaders drew deeply from the well of workplace culture for the resilience to respond quickly to changing circumstances.
But the pandemic then morphed into a slow moving crisis. The challenges are emerging gradually, remotely, and often obliquely. Uncertainty is high and the ways to respond are open. Not the least of which is the nagging concern for many leaders that this is an opportunity to reset the way work is understood and done across the APS.
In response to the pandemic, the mass migration to remote working has seen many leaders praising workforce adaptability and many employees reaffirming the positives of workplace culture. However, as the possibility of remote working extends into the ‘hybrid’ workplace of the future more leaders are using the need to replenish workplace culture as the reason to get back to a ‘normal’ way of working.
For others, remote working during COVID-19, has shown many leaders that workplace culture can thrive in a virtual environment. The rapid shift to remote working in response to the pandemic saw many of the traditional barriers to ‘flexible work’ (technology, job design, line-of-sight management) melt away. For some leaders, the early experience of remote working created a new and more direct connection between leaders and the workforce.
Where pre-pandemic thinking about ‘work’ was caged in the idea of a workplace as a fixed place of work, the emerging hybrid workplace is challenging our assumptions about work, the workforce, and the workplace. It is challenging us all to think more deeply about work, workplaces, and culture.
Today, the APS has a unique opportunity to reset the foundations of work in ways that improve workforce performance and engagement.
The opportunity to ‘innovate’ will be seized on by leaders as the way forward. Many of the ‘good news’ stories reflecting the APS response to the pandemic place a strong emphasis on how innovative the response to the crisis has been. In some ways this is true, but it also gives a false picture of what happened. Importantly, it discounts the depth of APS workforce culture and ability of the workforce to adapt using the tools and resources it had to hand – to improvise.
APS culture is sometimes criticised for stressing conformity and doing little to foster independent thinking. Work in the APS can be fractious and disaggregated. The experience of working in the bureaucracy can be like swimming through molasses toward an unclear objective. It can be disheartening and wearing. However, year-after-year, APS Census findings show most APS employees strongly believe in the purpose and objectives of the APS. The desire to do meaningful work that contributes to the greater good is, and has always been, at the core of APS culture. This core was the driver of the immediate response to the pandemic, and it is this core that will remain central to the resetting a new (and better) pattern of work.
To grasp the opportunity to reshape the workplace, APS leaders should work with the cultural foundations of resilience but also let go of some lazy managerial thinking.
People innovate, not technology
The pandemic has placed a lot of attention on the technology of remote working. This technology has always been available, the pandemic taught us all how to use it. The change has been in the way the technology has been adopted and adapted to open new possibilities in the way we work. In the hands of a willing workforce, it has proved to be more inclusive, efficient, and adaptable.
The leadership’s preoccupation with the potentially negative effect on workplace culture and social interaction is unfortunate, as it obscures the many benefits that have come from remote working over the last 12 months. Justifying the move toward returning the workforce to a fixed workplace should not rely on discounting or undermining what has been learned.
It is likely the workforce returning to the workplace in 2021 is more capable, knowledgeable, and adaptable than the workforce in the office in 2019. Shoehorning employee experience of the pandemic back into old ways of working will likely reduce engagement and productivity.
The first question for APS leaders is: ‘How do you reinforce the foundations of APS workplace culture and engagement to improve the experience of work for employees?’.
The infrastructure of work is boring but essential
By reducing the focus on technology, we can begin to see more clearly the basic infrastructure of work. It is not very glamorous or exciting, but it is crucial to how work gets done and how people experience the work they’re doing. It is rarely exposed in the way it has been exposed by the pandemic.
The infrastructure of work includes the way work is designed, managed, and organised. The pandemic has reshaped all three of these infrastructure elements. And, if we look carefully, our recent experience is showing us where the old infrastructure was failing.
We can see where we have been managing around inadequate management systems, we can see where the design of work was reducing performance and productivity, we can see where governance and decision-making were routinely bound into hierarchy and status, rather than focused on achieving the outcome.
The second question for APS leaders is: ‘How do we create new organisational infrastructure to ensure we learn the lesson that the impossible is nearly always possible?’.
Work is done by people
Finally, despite the relentless drive toward automating work the pandemic has reminded leaders that people are the foundation of work. When people encounter technology, new possibilities emerge. When people come together, problems are identified, and solutions are developed and implemented.
These people are not always the ‘talent’ that is so heavily invested in across the APS. Often, it is the solid citizens who turn up to do good in the world everyday, who see what needs to be done in ways that the innovative and creative bound together in ‘tiger teams’ cannot.
The solid citizens of the APS are the dominant middle of the APS workforce, but they are also the most unappreciated and undervalued. They are the workforce that feels the pressures in the infrastructure and the unforeseen consequences of an over-reliance on technology. They are the ones who showed the greatest resilience in responding to the pandemic and today they have the clearest view of the opportunities for change and improvement.
The third question for APS leaders is: ‘How do you free the experience and insights of the solid citizens to improve productivity and performance?’.
This is not the future of work, it is now
The pandemic has brought workplace culture and behaviour to the fore in conversations among APS leaders. The same questions are on the lips of the wider workforce and it may be that this group has a clearer sense of the possibilities and the path forward.
In a hybrid workplace, leaders and employees will need to grapple with the question of culture but also how we understand leadership, performance engagement, choice, job design, learning, structure, accountability, and governance and the way they interact. The answer will not be found at the poles of the office versus remote argument.
The hybrid workplace is a question of ends not means, a question of culture and behaviour not technology or process. It will be a failure of leadership imagination if in the simplistic rush to get back to ‘normal’ the APS does not take the opportunity to question culturally embedded assumptions about work and the workforce.
This is not a passive thought exercise about the future of work, this is now.
Dr. David Schmidtchen co-leads in Synergy’s creativeXpeople practice with Sally Dorsett. You can find out more about that here.