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Workforce infrastructure is critical to performance

When the screens go dark in the office or the power goes off at home, we’re reminded of the unseen critical infrastructure we rely on every day. Australia’s public service is also dependent on hidden workforce infrastructure that is easily overlooked but critical to generating workforce capability and delivering organisational performance.

The technologies that enable work are the obvious part of what we depend on, but there are also the many systems of workforce management and coordination that we have welded into the base of our everyday operations. Recruiting, learning and development, workforce planning and measurement and evaluation, to name a few.

Failure in these systems, or more likely degradation, is difficult to detect and fix. We implement patches, develop workarounds and make excuses for declining performance.

You will get no disagreement from APS leaders with the statement that ‘people are our greatest asset’. Yet, the systems that enable and support that asset are equally important. For example, clunky and misaligned workforce systems undermine performance no matter how capable the leader, employee or team is.

There are four areas where APS departments and agencies can focus on improving critical workforce infrastructure:

  • HR, ICT and finance integration;
  • improved speed and precision in accessing, selecting and sharing talent;
  • workforce management technologies and emerging challenges of governance by data;
  • the integration of physical, virtual and remote workspaces.

Integrating enabling functions

Better alignment and integration between HR, ICT and finance functions is now a must. In many organisations, these functions continue to operate in silos, with each pursuing its own ends.

The number of shadow HR, IT and finance operations running inside departments and agencies is a testament to the challenges siloed central service delivery teams have in meeting the needs of line managers. Typically, shadow functions are explained away as a product of rogue line managers, but this may be glossing over more fundamental issues.

People, money and technology are now so inherently dependent and interdependent that true integration in the design and delivery of these performance-enabling functions has the potential to generate significant efficiency and effectiveness improvements.

This isn’t a simple suggestion for better business partnering models but rather a call for truly integrated and mutually supporting planning and operations.

Speed and precision in talent

There’s a need for more efficient systems for accessing, selecting and sharing talent. This includes both new people from the labour market and facilitating movement within the public service to develop talent and deepen skills.

The national labour market has tightened significantly. There will be ongoing critical skills shortfalls across the economy until at least 2025. The APS competes across the labour market for generalist and specialist skills and for graduates and experienced practitioners. Precision in selecting the right people and speed in making an offer are critical in this market.

Typically, APS time-to-fill rates have lagged industry competitors. As the many reviews of the APS have shown, the delays often arise from long decision chains and complicated administration.

Departments and agencies have worked hard to address these issues but will struggle to attract and retain capable employees if they can’t quickly and effectively respond to the pace of the labour market.

Technology and governance by data

Everything that can be digital will be. This sentiment is shaping the future of our workplaces. So, the third challenge is effectively managing the changes in governance and structure that accompany integrating new technologies.

Once a tool we used to assist us in our work, technology is now a workforce policy and strategy lever. For example, leveraging the full functionality of enterprise resource planning systems has implications for governance, decision-making, process design and organisational structure. Implementing and adopting these technologies also drive change in other workforce systems.

However, the real change may come in the shift from having too little workforce data to having too much. In other industries, there has been a transformation in the quality and timeliness of data, leading to real-time observation and tracking of every part of the process. The transformation of supply chains is the most obvious example. We have all experienced the same phenomenon as digital devices, sensors and fast payments have become ubiquitous parts of our everyday lives.

The real-time revolution holds open the promise of better workforce decision-making but also opens the possibility that increased dependence means that bad and late data can lead to decision errors that have a tangible impact on the workforce.

The profusion of digital workforce data, and the deployment of artificial intelligence and machine learning in its analysis, may move APS leaders away from the traditional approach to governing by workforce segments or populations such as skills groups, occupational groups and position cohorts. The new workforce governance approach may be more dependent on technology and the flows of real-time data it generates as the driver of workforce management and decision-making.

In this scenario, there are opportunities for direct and real-time intervention by leaders at all workforce management levels. This would be a radical shift in the underlying workforce planning and management infrastructure.

Hybrid working and workspaces

The pandemic has opened the door to flexible working. Employees have been quick to embrace the opportunities and, in crisis, departments and agencies have adapted to meet the circumstances.

Overwhelmingly, the research shows the greatest concerns expressed by managers in terms of lower productivity and commitment haven’t eventuated. The challenge is to find the best path forward.

Interestingly, property and office space design has moved from the background to the foreground of workforce decision-making. Pre-pandemic, office accommodation was not seen as deeply connected to the way people work. Today, office accommodation and ways of working are now a front-of-mind issue for leaders seeking to maximise the opportunities of hybrid working.

The result will be some combination of physical space designed to suit collaborative working that reinforces and deepens culture and connection, virtual spaces that connect employees more directly by reducing distance and reshaping perceptions of work time, and remote spaces where the office can be a desk in a home or a temporary office in a shared location.

While some APS leaders may see the return of a pre-pandemic working environment as desirable and necessary, it’s likely these employers will not be competitive in attracting or retaining talent.

Integrating how physical, virtual and remote workspaces all contribute to improved workforce performance is now a competitive advantage in the labour market and a significant contributor to organisational performance.

It’s not enough to shuffle deckchairs

‘Rearranging the deckchairs’ is a phrase used far too easily to describe cosmetic public sector change. The pandemic quietly exposed the flaws in many business and public service organisations where there has been chronic underinvestment in the systems that enable workforce management. Some leaders have taken the opportunity to learn and experiment while others are bent on returning to ‘normal’.

The reality is that the pressures of the pandemic have broken some core workforce infrastructure and the demand to do things differently has accelerated.

The principal barriers to workforce transformation are change-resistant leaders and insufficient knowledge and talent to reshape workforce structures and systems to meet the new environment. In a competitive labour market, the workforce won’t spend long waiting around.

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