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Not so remote: Flexible, smart working in the digital age

The Trapeze Team | November 11, 2015

There are now three billion internet users globally – almost half of the world’s population.1 If it were a national economy, the internet would be the fifth largest in the world.2 We are truly living in a digital age – and in this age, what was previously thought of as difficult or even impossible is being made both possible and practical, as information technology revolutionises the way we live, think and work.

Professor Helen Margetts, the Director of the Oxford Internet Institute points out that the digital age has brought all kinds of changes to our social, economic and working lives. In a presentation at the London Cyberspace Conference, she notes that “citizens now live quite a lot of their lives online […] and internet-based forms of engagement are on the rise.”3

Professor Margetts believes these changes present government at all levels – from national through to local government in local councils and authorities – with the opportunity to rethink the way organisations are run and services operated.

But why should Local Authorities look to redefine the way they work and operate? And how would they initiate such changes to policy and process – utilising the opportunities presented by the internet and digital technology? This article looks to shed some light here…

Cost savings in the age of austerity

All local authorities in the UK are facing the challenge of modernising services against a backdrop of diminishing funding. Indeed, in 2014 local councils in England reported that funding from central government has been reduced by 8.8% - it is set to fall further still amid huge scale budgetary cuts.4, 5, 6 Working smarter – more efficiently and more cost-effectively – is therefore a crucial part of any strategy to address the challenge of doing more with less.

Yet there is clear potential to utilise the opportunities of the digital age to help make necessary cost savings, while simultaneously boosting efficiency. As Professor Margetts explains: “In an age of austerity, 'digital by default' strategies offer real potential to save money. Multi-channel approaches, much heralded throughout the last decade, are really expensive. Incentivizing—and even mandating—citizens to interact electronically really saves money.”

‘Electronic interaction’ here perhaps sounds unnecessarily futuristic, since all that is really meant by the term is enabling workers to work more flexibly and effectively by using technology that helps them engage with IT systems and databases. Such thoughts are by no means new – indeed, flexibility.co.uk (a leading provider of news, views and resources about flexible working) explains that such a strategy can enable remote working practices and working from home schemes that can produce “significant benefits and improved work-life balance for staff.”7

The same site goes onto explain that, by using new technologies to streamline processes, local authorities are able to “reduce paper processes while also carrying out key processes and transactions in the field without the need to return to base”. End result? “Enabling flexible work and reducing storage requirements in office space… The potential savings in this area are enormous.”

As we’ve mentioned, in an age where every potential route to cost savings must be identified and pursued effectively, exploring the potential of flexible, remote working can bring very real value to local authorities and similar organisations.

Online working

Facilitating online working – where workers are able to access information, tools and systems held in an organisation’s IT infrastructure from home (or anywhere else with a stable internet connection, for that matter) – can make workers far more effective.

This isn’t simple conjecture, either, as this case study from Project Nomad (one of the UK Government’s ‘National Projects’) illustrates.8 Indeed, the evidence from the case study suggests that “there are potential benefits to be gained worth up to £336 million per year” from facilitating flexible working by utilising “mobile computing”.

In one striking example, the London Borough of Sutton achieved efficiency savings of up to 47% by equipping local authority staff with “tablet PCs onto which staff [are able to] write directly when they carry out processes.” And, as well as the cost savings, the council also saw “a 30% increase in productivity” among staff.

Interestingly, we at Trapeze have witnessed similar benefits with our fleet management system, Fleetmaster, where we created a touchscreen-based version to enable workshop staff to log job details directly, eliminating the requirement for printed job cards. Though not related to working from home, this is another example of the benefits of flexible working processes. And indeed, this simple change has produced startling results at both Darlington Borough Council and Sheffield City Council.

Yet there are also other benefits that flexibility.co.uk associates with flexible working practices, including reduced staff turnover and absences; elimination of unnecessary travel; and supporting a more inclusive workforce.

Remote working in practice

With so many benefits derived from flexible and remote working initiatives, why isn’t every local authority doing this? The truth is that there are a number of reasons.

The first barrier might be that the concept can prove daunting due to apparent complexity. For example,  different teams within a local authorities’ transport department may each have differing requirements and processes that affect the way a remote working scheme is put into practice. Meanwhile, there may also be a requirement of a certain ‘culture shift’ among teams and management. Indeed, flexibility.co.uk noted that “managers are used to ‘managing by presence’ [which means] a programme of culture change [is required] to accept that staff can work effectively outside of core hours and in remote locations.”

Yet these challenges – though real – can be overcome. Flexible working is already a growing trend in the UK, with a detailed study from Sheffield Hallam University noting that “Flexible working […]occur in ca 10% [of UK local authorities]; but have grown significantly in the last two years. A number of councils also report being at the stage of planning pilots.”9

Furthermore, the study also points out that organisations that have adopted flexible or remote working have seen clear benefits: “working from home has been shown to work for groups of both professional and clerical staff, if properly supported […] they have been welcomed by staff and have led to what are seen as more flexible and responsive services.”

There are also well-documented real-life examples of local councils using digital technology to facilitate this new way of working. Both Leeds City Council and Hampshire County Council have adopted the ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD) approach – whereby council staff are able to work remotely or from home via council-provided smartphones.10, 11 Such approaches can be extremely valuable to organisations looking to facilitate flexible and smart working. Indeed, recruitment firm Eden Scott note that “Allowing employees to bring their device into the working environment means that work can be done on the go, away from the desk, and even at home. In a world that is driven by electronic communication […] companies can save money, both on devices and training, if employees can use their own devices.”12

Another excellent example is Aberdeenshire Council, where the ‘Worksmart’ programme. This was built around encouraging staff to work flexibly, remotely, or from home, as a means of increasing productivity, sustainability and service levels, while also creating savings and improving working conditions for staff. The programme has clearly been a success – as it has already produced savings of “£250,000 per year”, according to this detailed case study.13

Working Smart: consider the cloud

When it comes to using digital technology that enables remote working, it is of course important to do so in the most effective way possible. Increasingly, the general consensus here is that most cost savings will be made by reducing the need for expensive infrastructure. Indeed, the Sheffield Hallam study notes how one local council (“County B”) was able to free up so much office space, they were able to sell these assets for £5 million – “covering investment in ICT for the scheme” – while also receiving “revenue savings of ca. “£1m pa.”.

We know that one of the easiest steps to take in order to free up office space is to use ‘True’ cloud (browser-based) systems. As noted in this article, Cloud enables easier remote working for staff, and also reduces the need for extensive (and expensive) ICT hardware and overheads. The potential cost savings here are significant, since it is possible to reduce ICT maintenance costs, while also freeing up office space .14 

Indeed, this report from the UK Government, Local Government in the digital age, notes that “Cloud computing […] is a process of revolutionizing the way ICT services are provided and is promising to radically reduce costs, with some organisations claiming savings of 30% of more from its adoption.”15

Engaging staff

Crucially, the use of cloud-based systems enable staff to access the information and systems they need wherever they are – this was at the heart of Aberdeenshire’s Worksmart programme, which first introduced the initiative as a voluntary scheme staff could sign up to. The council also practiced staff engagement, as Mark Baker – Service Manager at Aberdeenshire – explains:

We’ve done a huge amount of staff engagement. Over 200 managers have been consulted so far, so we know the kinds of issues and concerns that they have, and how to provide the support they need..

Having the support of senior managers is really important.  If the senior managers in a department are on board, that’s great.  Our focus then is more on supporting middle managers who will need to deal with managing in new ways – they are expected to become more modern managers, managing by results.

The council supported the project with a dedicated website, and as the initiative developed, were also able to focus on ways to streamline the organisation’s property portfolio. The ‘WorkSPACE’ programme helped the organisation to “rationalize property”, according to Baker, as workers were able to work flexibly, remotely and also from home. 

All of the councils’ achievements thanks to these initiatives – from saving money, improving staff happiness, reducing staff turnover and reducing CO2 emissions – have been made possible by technology, with “staff equipped with appropriate portable technologies.” With the rise of the smartphone and tablet computer, everything needed to facilitate ‘smart’ working practices really is available to local authorities hoping to improve their working processes.16

Challenges

Of course, with any new initiative, there will likely be some challenges. Flexibility.co.uk notes that one of the most usual of these is “resistance to change” among staff. Interestingly, when it comes to remote working, the main cause of this resistance was “the natural resistance that people feel in terms of ownership” such as for their working desk or their filing cabinet. Yet this challenge may have a simple solution, as  Mark Baker suggests “the way forward is to tell people how much their desk and storage costs per year. In this way, staff are encouraged to take ‘ownership’ of the costs of their working practices.”

Another key challenge often noted is that local authorities are often bound into lengthy and tightly specified IT and telecoms contracts, so piloting new initiatives that would involve a move away from these contracts can prove difficult. However, Flexibility.co.uk again provides advice here, suggesting that the best step forward here is to work with an “outsourcing provider [who] is sympathetic” and willing to assist in your project.

While the potential challenges in introducing any new initiative can be daunting, when it comes to flexible working, they really needn’t be. Not only can they be overcome relatively easily – the potential benefits from navigating the challenges successfully are perhaps too good to pass up on.  

Technology on hand to assist

Many Local Authorities are already used to implementing technology to improve access to travel for their passengers – for example, SPT have been using online, self-service tools to help increase access to their DRT service, ‘MyBus’.17 But what if similar technology could be used to help improve access to back office systems for workers? Well, it can!

In fact, in the commercial bus sector, numerous companies are using self-service tools to help drivers and office staff work – and manage working processes – from home, or other remote locations. Tools like DAS-Web are helping organisations like Tower Transit Operations Limited to facilitate smarter working.18, 19

Indeed, BYOD schemes are a simple way to start out on the road to facilitating more flexible working practices. As Marcus Hunter, who handles ICT strategy, architecture and commissioning at Leeds City Council, explains: “Everybody can see the value of self-service schemes, as well as shared services and […] hosting environments […] we’re seeing a more educated society, I think, a more connected society, which is helping corporations like us to be a bit innovative.”

Jos Creese, Hampshire County Council’s CIO agrees: “We are certainly persuaded it is convenient for people to be able to use their iPhone, iPad, or BlackBerry, and we want to encourage that as an option for [our workers].”

The combination of increasing smartphone availability and high-quality cloud systems means that digital technology very much leads the way in revolutionising working practices throughout the UK Local Authority network. Indeed, as the Local Government in the digital age report notes, “Mobile government is therefore emerging as the next big wave for information and communications technology use in the public sector. The motivations for moving to ‘M-Government’ include better accessibility, availability, responsiveness and scalability, as well as lower costs.”

Technology, then, should be seen as an enabling tool to assist Local Authorities in adopting flexible and working practices. As the Government report notes: “Introducing mobile and flexible working can deliver enormous savings, increase productivity and extend hours of service delivery […] technology [does not] provide the starting point for considering the adoption of these working practices; rather, it is an enabler. [Technologies] can improve the efficiency and responsiveness of services.”

Conclusion

With the significant benefits available to all stakeholders in a Local Authority – from office staff to managers and directors (and also the general public) – it certainly seems time for Local Authorities to explore ways of enabling smarter working practices through home, remote, and flexible working policies.

While an overall strategy for each organisation should be agreed at the highest level, it is important to establish programmes for particular departments, services and teams, and roll the strategy forward on a phased basis, piloting where appropriate.

As we have seen, the digital age offers all the technology and services necessary to revolutionise the way we work, and these technologies truly can enable better, more improved working practices in Local Authorities, while also providing significant cost savings.

When choosing the technology to assist, it is also absolutely critical that you work with a supplier who is on your side and shares your aims and objectives – and is willing to support you in realizing your goals as you seek to modernise.

References

  1. “Internet used by 3.2 billion people in 2015” BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-32884867
  2. POWERS, M., “The world’s 5th largest economy in 2016: the internet” Better Business Bureau  http://www.bbb.org/blog/2012/03/the-worlds-5th-largest-economy-in-2016-the-internet/
  3. MARGETTS, H., “Seeing like a citizen – not seeing like a state?” Government on the web http://www.governmentontheweb.org/blog/2011/11/prof-helen-margetts-remarks-london-cyberspace-conference
  4. “Council cuts: who will lose out most?” BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-30537288
  5. “Minister outlines funding ‘cut of 1.8% for English councils” BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-30524122
  6. “Draw up 40% cuts plans, George Osborne tells Whitehall departments” BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-33610801
  7. “Flexing the Town Hall: The benefits of flexible work for local government” Flexibility http://www.flexibility.co.uk/issues/modgov/local-government.htm
  8. “Council nomads: keeping local authorities mobile” Flexibility http://www.flexibility.co.uk/issues/modgov/project-nomad.htm#assessments
  9. PRICE, I., “Flexible working policies and environments in UK Local Authorities: Current practice” Sheffield Hallam University http://shura.shu.ac.uk/3960/1/Reportv4.pdf
  10. CALDWELL, T., “BYOD Light: how Leeds took its first steps toward bring your own device” The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/government-computing-network/2012/apr/02/byod-leeds-council-android-iphone
  11. BEST, J., “BYOD coming to Hampshire this autumn” The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/government-computing-network/2012/may/02/byod-hampshire-county-council
  12. VINTEN, M., “BYOD: Essential for Flexible Working or a Security Nightmare?” Eden Scott http://www.edenscott.com/blog/byod-essential-for-flexible-working-or-a-security-nightmare
  13. “Working smarter at Aberdeenshire Council” Flexibility http://www.flexibility.co.uk/cases/Aberdeenshire-Council-Worksmart.htm
  14. “A Head in the Cloud” Trapeze http://www.trapezegroup.co.uk/blog/article/ahead-in-the-cloud
  15. THORNTON, J., “Local Government in the Digital Age” Local Government Knowledge Navigator http://www.local.gov.uk/documents/10180/11515/Local+government+in+the+digital+age+(Need+to+know+Knowledge+Navigator+number+3)/544d1515-3483-4a58-8da4-da92eca6126b
  16. ARTHURT, C., “The death of the featurephone in the UK – and what’s next” The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/apr/30/featurephone-smartphone-uk-
  17. “Joining up journeys with SPT” Trapeze http://www.trapezegroup.co.uk/case_study/joining-up-journeys-with-spt
  18. “Employee self service” Trapeze http://www.trapezegroup.co.uk/downloads/DAS-Web_v2.0.pdf
  19. “London calling: revolutionizing driver communications with Tower Transit” Trapeze http://www.trapezegroup.co.uk/case_study/london-calling-revolutionising-driver-communications-with-tower-transit

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The Trapeze Team are here to bring you news and information from Trapeze Group (UK) and the public transportation industry.

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