In September 2016, management at Staffordshire County Council surveyed its staff to gauge if they felt they had the right tools to do their job. The answer: not so much.
Specifically, staffers complained of a lack of access to the right technologies was restricting them from working flexibly - frustration that was resulting in what the Council admits were diminished levels of collaboration and fraying of trust with employees.
In July 2018, it repeated the exercise - and found some very different numbers, including the fact that 84% of the workforce feel they have an improved work-life balance - a 21% increase since the 2016 exercise, while 15% more employees believed they are able to work anywhere in order to deliver business-critical services and a 17% growth in the number of staff feeling they are able to access the technology they need to work from different locations.
And from the employer’s point of view, perhaps the most welcome findings were that 73% reported themselves satisfied with Staffordshire as a place to work – compared to 59% since the smart working project started - while a pretty convincing 93% of council employees felt they had a good understanding of what smart working is in practice, what it means for them, and their role.
So what changed in the meantime? Some interesting work the authority has been taking around introducing what it has dubbed its Smart Working initiative. Its Chief Executive, John Henderson, sets the scene for what happened:
“The UK public sector is under considerable pressure to consolidate its real estate to cut costs, the reduction of various organisations into smaller premises is inevitable. With all of these organisations having their own networks, hardware and IT systems, there are always technology challenges to overcome, but we are convinced Staffordshire County Council is truly leading the way for other councils and government bodies.
“Our Smart Working project showcases the unmistakable benefits such schemes can bring to an organisation, is a prime example of how innovative the public sector can be - and should come as a reminder that the local government is definitely not falling behind with technological advances, as many are led to believe.”
So - what is all this ‘Smart Working’? In practical terms, it means the installation of over a thousand so-called ‘universal docking stations’ organisation-wide, with a major upgrade of the majority of staff workstations and new ways of supporting both new and legacy devices in a new environment - both physical and IT.
‘New ways of working’
Staffordshire County Council is a major local authority for the non-metropolitan county of England, and describes its mission is to connect communities and ensure they have the opportunity to be healthy, happy and prosperous via a range of business, community and living, education and learning, environment, culture, social care and health and transport services.
The specific business problem that led to that 2017 survey was what Henderson describes as an active search for new ways of working at the Council.
“That survey exercise revealed to us that a lack of access to the correct technologies was limiting our workforce from working flexibly, but as we looked deeper into the issue we found out that a key reason for this was the limited desk to employee ratio.”
What Henderson means by that word ‘ratio’ is that each desk in a Council office was set-up with a number of legacy devices that came with their own set of proprietary docking stations and cables. There were simply not enough desks with compatible connectivity to enable all employees to work freely in the limited space, he claims.
Resolving the issue came with a number of challenges, he admits - including the ability to support Staffordshire’s existing laptop estate (i.e., all its legacy users) which included a mixture of device manufacturers and laptop models, plus the need to enable users of new devices to connect into the same desk environment.
An additional complexity was power delivery, he told diginomica/government, and how the authority could enable users to charge all their various devices at any desk without the need to carry additional power cables.
Staff no longer restricted
“Once we had identified the problem, we were looking for a solutions provider that could understand our unique challenges and suggest a powerful solution that was easy to implement. We were also looking for a partner that would allow us the opportunity to test out the solution on a smaller scale before we rolled it out company-wide.”
The chosen solution was introducing universal docking hardware supporting dual HD displays with built-in power to allow employees to arrive at any ‘enabled’ desk and work in a way that, to use Henderson’s words, was both familiar and comfortable to them.
“This solution offered the team the ability to seamlessly connect any device making it an easy, hassle-free solution to implement. Employees are now able to connect their laptop to hardware that were already a part of their traditional desk set-up including external monitors, keyboard, mouse and network connection, and all his users now able to fully benefit from smart working at any desk.
Why is that a good thing? The key pay-off seems to be flexibility, which is something managers have finally bought into, too:
“Since launching our smart working project, staff are no longer restricted to their desks or indeed the office; they are free to work anywhere around the office, at home, or even ‘on the go’. So, while Smart Working at Staffordshire has not only helped our workers with more flexibility, which in turn improves productivity and reduces wastage, we have also seen a growth in the use of collaborative meetings using video communications. That’s because not being physically always in the room no longer means you can’t be in the meeting, and they can also now be less formal, quicker to set up, and ultimately deliver better and faster outcomes, while reducing wasted time and costs.
“At the same time, previously there was a misconception that if you weren’t visible at your desk, you weren’t working. People now know that this isn’t the case, something that’s had a significantly positive impact on employee satisfaction.”
A lot more than just a property move
We asked Henderson how all this Smart Working idea fits into any wider digital transformation strategy he is overseeing at Staffordshire - to which he offered a definite ‘yes’:
“The smart working / smart council approach is a core strand of our digital strategy, and in fact is driving the cultural change required to achieve it. The project has been such a success in our central offices that we are looking to roll out the smart working initiative across other districts as well; our culture is now on the front foot so much that, our support functions, like ICT and HR, are struggling to keep up!”
Henderson also believes the work supports non-technology operational imperatives, too:
“Our mantra that our workforce is central to everything we do - which is why we put them centre stage of what could have been otherwise been simply a combined property move and ICT upgrade.”
Staffordshire County Council’s chosen technology partner for the project we have described is manufacturer of accessories mostly related to mobile computing, photography, and locks company Targus.