Innovative workplaces: how flexible is too flexible for the public service?

By Victoria Draudins

June 2, 2017

While government could never be as agile and innovative as a startup, they can make many changes, both big and small, to inject some elements into the public service.

First up, we turn to Tim Fung, CEO of Airtasker, one of Australia’s most successful home-grown startups, to see how his innovative workplace gets the most out of employees, and how suited governments might be to replicating these approaches. The Sydney-based company enables people to pay others to do jobs ranging from the routine, like washing someone’s car, to the unusual, like waiting in queue for the new iPhone 7. In five short years, Airtasker has grown annual revenues to $40 million a year.

The switched-on CEO ties an effective workplace with having a strong mission. For Airtasker, this means empowering every person to realise their skills. Airtasker’s mission is carried out through five principles, highly applicable to any organisation, public sector or otherwise.

  1. People matter – Airtasker keeps in mind it is not just a technology company. With 1.2 million members it’s essentially a customer-focused organisation. The rise of design thinking in government, while still far from mainstream, has been used by a range of government agencies in pursuit of the same objective.
  2. Stay open – at Airtasker they’re encouraged to set big dreams and aim high. This is actually a common practice of any innovative enterprise. First, think of the ideal solution to a problem, no matter how outlandish or unlikely, and then scale back to what’s achievable with given resources, timelines and political constraints. People often adopt the reverse approach, and ultimately don’t push boundaries as far as they can go.
  3. Personal ownership – Airtasker is really big on staff owning their own productivity, projects and happiness. Taking a non-hierarchical approach and getting employees to step up is important. According to Harvard Business Review, obtaining better results from team members is one of a manager’s top three sources of anxiety.
  4. Fit for purpose – closely related to point three, Airtasker aims to let people know the whole context so they have enough information to go off and develop projects with little direction. While it can be difficult for public servants, particularly at junior levels, to be across all the machinations taking place in government, regularly sharing institutional knowledge and flagging sensitivities will save everyone time and achieve better results.
  5. Balance – at Airtasker, they believe in having a balanced lifestyle. But staff also strongly believe in their mission and work very hard to achieve it.

Bigger is not always better

Airtasker recently restructured by breaking itself down into five small, cross-functional and independent teams. The organisation had grown from its small origins to about 50 people. “That is quite large for a tech company, you could see it starting to slow down,” says Fung.

In making this move to disrupt itself, Fung said: “I’m inspired by the Spotify, Airbnb and Uber in particular… While there might be a perceived loss of efficiency, the gains brought about by it far outweigh them.” However, it’s a balancing act. Fung notes that while self-sufficient teams create autonomy, you risk losing alignment in the organisation. And although small teams can reduce friction, government is inherently more complex, making it more difficult or unfeasible to replicate in some contexts.

To create new ideas, keep close to customers

Touching on principle 1, Fung observed that the people coming up with the best new ideas at his company are those closest to the customer. “They’re the best placed to absorb information. And through our small team structure they’re able to move the dial and effect change.”

“Service delivery staff are be well placed to come up with the next best ideas — provide a mechanism for frontline staff to to ‘move the dial’ themselves.”

It doesn’t mean employees sit back and wait for customers to suggest changes. New ideas are “not just driven by customers; as Steve Jobs said, customers don’t know what they want,” says Fung.

This suggests that service delivery staff in particular may be well placed to come up with the next best ideas. But this then means providing a mechanism for frontline staff to then be able to ‘move the dial’ themselves. The Department of Employment for example has recently implemented an Ideas Management System, Spark, to channel and prioritise its innovative activity.

And while it’s not always possible for public servants to be close to citizens, especially at central agencies, there are still ways to interact with those ultimately impacted by new measures. For example, as graduates at the federal Treasury, we spent a day in Centrelink offices to see how DHS service centres operated. Even this short experience provided some powerful real context for work I was trying to achieve later on.

Redesigning workspaces

Another feature common to startups and other innovative companies is that they often have really nice workspaces, even if they don’t always have a lot of money. This is because these companies realise that to have good workplaces and cultures, the physical space matters.

Despite the rise of email, Harvard Business Review wrote that in-person interactions in an office are the most important activity, with unplanned interactions between workers especially good at improving performance. Realising this, leading tech companies from Google to Facebook have focused on increasing chance encounters between employees when reimagining their offices. Samsung’s recently redesigned $300 million Silicone Valley campus aimed to ensure that engineers and salespeople actually mingled.

“The most creative ideas aren’t going to come while sitting in front of your monitor,” says Scott Birnbaum, a vice president of Samsung Semiconductor. The new building “is really designed to spark not just collaboration but that innovation you see when people collide.”

You can very easily see how this could add value in a public sector context of getting teams of technocrats to mingle more with policy specialists for example. In saying this, the benefits of better, more flexible work environments are not new to government. The then Department of Finance and Deregulation even created a Flexible and Efficient Workplace Design Guidance in 2013. But in the face of budget constraints, better office design often takes a backseat to other priorities.

“Hot-desking requires a complete shift in the way some people have worked for years, and some functions are harder adapt to than others.”

Some agencies have made inroads, with the Australian Taxation Office currently running a Future Workspace trial. The space, co-designed with staff, aims to improve productivity, collaboration and wellbeing. Through hot-desking, employees can work in different areas, where they see themselves as most productive.

Under ATO’s first trial, 21 teams with 165 people were moved into the space. Workplace satisfaction increased by 26.5% and enhanced social interactions. However, it may not be as simple as it may seem at face value. Hot-desking requires a complete shift in the way some people have worked for years, and some functions are harder adapt to than others – like those in call centre operations or audit, which have to sift through large volumes of information.

New initiatives are great for employee satisfaction and productivity in the long term. However, constrained by the complexity and diversity of work, best practises can’t just be rolled out overnight to government in the same way as they can in start-ups.

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