Report on the Inquiry into Flexible Working in the Public Sector in Northern Ireland
Date: 08 October 2014
Reference: NIA 200/11-16
Mandate Number: Mandate 2011/16 Eleventh Report
flex-working_volume-1.pdf (13.29 mb)
Inquiry Terms of Reference
Purpose: The Inquiry will aim to investigate how flexible working practices – including arrangements for how, when and where public servants undertake their work – could be implemented successfully and used strategically for maximum benefit and efficiency in the public sector in Northern Ireland.
Objectives: The Inquiry has the following key objectives:
- To examine the extent to which flexible working is implemented in the NICS, including a critical review of existing policy and practice regarding flexible working time and a survey of cases where developments in technology and workplace design are being used to facilitate the flexible location of work in the NICS.
- To identify lessons from international case studies on how flexible working arrangements have been implemented effectively elsewhere to achieve benefits for employers, employees and potentially for the wider economy and society, including: increased productivity; improved staff morale and commitment; reduced staff turnover and absenteeism; wider recruitment talent pools; reduced levels of economic inactivity; reduced premises costs; promotion of gender equality in employment; and environmental benefits.
- To consider the range of options presented by new technology and workplace design to support flexible working practices, such as mobile working, teleworking, remote conferencing, hot-desking and satellite offices, and to examine approaches to monitoring and managing performance in such circumstances.
- To explore the types of work or job roles within the NICS which are suited to flexible working practices; and
- To consider the critical success factors, challenges, barriers and risks to introducing flexible working and how these can be managed and mitigated as appropriate.
Output: The intention is that the Inquiry will result in a report to the Northern Ireland Assembly containing evidence-based findings and recommendations to the Department of Finance and Personnel and the wider Executive. These findings and recommendations will inform the development of cross-cutting strategic policies and procedures for enhancing existing and implementing new flexible working arrangements across the NICS to maximum beneficial effect, which may also be applicable to the wider public sector in Northern Ireland.
In referring to the impact that the recession is having on the need to reform the way the public sector is run, a leading authority on flexible working recently observed:
‘Major change against a backdrop of funding cuts is the name of the game. The imperatives to achieve greater efficiency, to do more with less, are greater than ever. There has never been a more urgent time to work smarter’1
This is the context in which the Committee for Finance and Personnel undertook its cross-cutting Inquiry, with the aim of investigating how flexible working practices – including arrangements for how, when and where public servants undertake their work – could be implemented successfully and used strategically for maximum benefit and efficiency in the public sector in Northern Ireland. While the Inquiry examined the full range of flexible working options, including flexible time working, there was a particular focus on the further opportunities for flexible location working, such as working from hub/satellite offices, mobile working and sharing office space.
Arising from its investigations, the Committee notes the weight of evidence confirming the potential benefits of flexible working, whether for the employer, the employee, the economy, the environment or society generally. These include, for example: reduced office accommodation costs; increased productivity; better work-life balance; improved staff morale and commitment; reduced staff turnover and absenteeism; promotion of gender equality in employment; reduced levels of economic inactivity; and environmental benefits. From the international research, case studies on best practice and expert testimony, it is clear to the Committee that it is more a question of how rather than whether flexible working practices should be applied.
For the benefits to be fully realised in the public sector in Northern Ireland, there is a need for the Executive to take a strategic and coordinated policy approach rather than piecemeal application, especially in relation to the flexible location of work. While cautioning against a ‘one size fits all’ approach, the Committee believes that the strategic direction and guiding principles must be set at the highest level of government, together with the Department of Finance and Personnel having a central role in guiding and monitoring implementation. In conjunction with this, departments and other public bodies should be provided with a menu of flexible working options from which they can select and tailor solutions to meet business needs at a local level.
The Inquiry has examined the range of good practice steps and change measures needed to ensure successful implementation of a strategic policy, including: establishing the evidence, providing the vision, managing resistance, leading change, engaging staff, assessing jobs for flexibility, managing performance by results, providing smart workplaces, embracing new technology, and training for change. It is evident that the greatest challenge is in gaining commitment at the top level of management and creating a conducive organisational culture – one that challenges existing policies, processes and practices to see if desired outcomes can be achieved in a better way and using fewer resources.
Members believe that circumstances are now right to fully exploit the advantages that strategic application of flexible working can bring to the public sector in Northern Ireland, including the need to maximise efficiency savings while maintaining effective service delivery in a constrained financial climate. The co-ordinated roll out of flexible location working should be seen as an ‘invest to save’ measure which will support the delivery of a range of other government policies and priorities, not least the reform and modernisation of the public sector. Given that technological, social, economic and environmental drivers will force change in any event, government must now take the opportunity to fully embrace flexible working in order to harness its potential, shape the change to fit business needs and fully realise the benefits. The Inquiry findings and recommendations aim to inform the Department and the wider Executive in taking the necessary steps towards this outcome.
Key Conclusions and Recommendations
1. Given the many facets of flexible working, in terms of the range of options for achieving desired outcomes by being flexible about how, when and where people work, the Committee concurs that a ‘one size fits all’ policy approach on this matter is not appropriate for the public sector in Northern Ireland (NI). Instead, government departments and other public bodies need to be supported in selecting and implementing flexible working practices which best suit their own individual business needs. (paragraph 53)
2. In terms of the flexible location of work, the Committee is strongly of the view that the focus should not be on homeworking in particular but rather on selecting the appropriate remote working options and technologies – including, for example, working from hub/satellite offices, in virtual teams, using mobile devices, and sharing office space – which are right for a given job or team environment in meeting business needs. The Committee also recommends that, as with the other remote working options, where homeworking is applied as an appropriate method, this should be on the basis of careful assessment of job tasks and agreed rules and safeguards, including contact protocols and good practice performance measurement and management. (paragraph 54)
3. In general terms, the Committee considers that the weight of evidence from the published literature and case studies strongly indicates that significant benefits for the NI public sector will accrue from applying flexible working practices in a strategic, tailored and coordinated fashion. The potential benefits for public sector employers, employees and the wider economy and society, as applicable, include: reduced premises costs; increased productivity; improved staff morale and commitment; reduced staff turnover and absenteeism; wider recruitment talent pools; reduced levels of economic inactivity; promotion of gender equality in employment; and environmental benefits. In light of this, the Committee believes that the initial outlay from the strategic implementation of flexible working practices should be seen in terms of an ‘invest-to-save’ measure. (paragraph 55)
4. On the basis of the evidence received, the Committee notes the generally held view that the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) has been at the forefront of the introduction of flexible time working practices. The Committee commends NICS as an exemplar organisation in this aspect of flexible working and, given its status as a significant employer in NI, members would encourage the Service to continue to keep pace with developments in this regard. (paragraph 84)
5. However, in terms of the flexible location of work, it is apparent that a piecemeal, inconsistent and uncoordinated approach is being taken by departments, which arises from the absence of corporate policy and guidance and is reflected by incomplete data on existing practices. The Committee believes that, unless this changes, NICS will not realise the full benefits from a strategic application of flexible working practices. Members concur that, in the modern era of technological communications, the focus of work is more on what is done rather than where it is done and consequently, within Northern Ireland public sector organisations, there needs to be a cultural shift away from ‘managing by presence’ and to ‘managing by results’. (paragraph 85)
6. The Committee recommends that the Minister of Finance and Personnel brings proposals to the Executive for a new Programme for Government commitment aimed at ensuring that the full range of flexible working practices are used strategically for maximum benefit and efficiency in the public sector. This should include establishing the guiding principles for departments and other public bodies to apply; setting out the menu of options on how, when and where work can be conducted and from which applicable selection can be made at the business area or team level within organisations. The high-level commitment should also be accompanied with an indicative timetable and milestones for delivery. (paragraph 86)
7. While members do not presently see a case for legislating for flexible location working in the NI public sector, the Committee recommends that the proposed Programme for Government commitment and guiding principles include an onus on all departments to ensure that the work styles and tasks associated with each NICS job role are assessed at the business area or team level to determine the applicable flexible working practices. The Committee considers that this will help to drive the implementation of the strategic policy within and across departments. (paragraph 109)
8. The Committee firmly believes that the strategic implementation of flexible working, facilitated by a corresponding roll out of appropriately designed workplaces, will maximise the property savings to be achieved from the rationalisation of government office accommodation. Given the current budgetary pressures on the Executive and the considerable scope for consolidation of the NICS estate, this should be a key priority for the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP); though members recognise that the rationale for flexible working is primarily about doing things better, whilst being less wasteful with existing resources, rather than solely about reducing accommodation costs. (paragraph 151)
9. In terms of enabling flexible location working, the Committee recommends a carefully planned and co-ordinated extension of the workhub/satellite office network across the NI public sector. This should aim to achieve a more joined-up and collaborative approach by public sector bodies to improve the geographic spread of the facilities and enable a greater number and range of public servants to work remotely as applicable, with a view to realising the associated benefits, not least the work-life balance, environmental and economic benefits from reduced travel time. (paragraph 152)
10. The Committee is concerned that the public sector in Northern Ireland appears to lag behind other jurisdictions in adopting new technology to support flexible working practices – a concern which is heightened in view of the prominence of local software companies in this market. In the context of the public sector reform agenda and the NICS People Strategy, the Committee recommends that DFP takes the lead in proactively identifying opportunities for adopting and exploiting technological solutions to enable and support flexible/mobile/agile working in a wider range of public sector job roles. (paragraph 164)
11. With a view to maximising savings from reduced travel costs in NICS, members believe that internet-based conferencing should be the preferred method for civil servants participating in meetings which would otherwise involve travel outside Northern Ireland. (paragraph 165)
12. The Committee recommends that, in support of the proposed Executive Programme for Government commitment and guiding principles for the strategic application of flexible working practices across departments and other public bodies, DFP develops corporate guidance for successful implementation at a local level. This should, in particular, cover the following types of issues:
- Effecting the necessary cultural changes and overcoming attitudinal challenges, including: preparing the ground; gaining leadership commitment; evidence gathering; awareness raising; managing resistance to change; and securing employee cooperation and flexibility.
- Addressing practical aspects, including: assessing jobs for flexibility; technology requirements; workplace design; training; establishing the ground rules and behavioural protocols; and performance management.
- Mitigating the risks, including: management buy-in and top level engagement; strong business cases; employee and union involvement; effective communications; transparency in assessing jobs for flexibility; data security measures; and focus on business needs, results and outcomes. (paragraph 168)
13. The Inquiry evidence, including the lessons from other jurisdictions, will offer a useful resource for the Department and Executive to draw on in developing the proposed principles and guidance for the strategic implementation of flexible working practices across NICS and beyond. (paragraph 169)
14. The Committee would wish to see DFP taking lead responsibility for monitoring and reporting on implementation of the proposed measures, thereby facilitating future Assembly scrutiny at a cross-departmental level. In this regard, the Committee would wish to see a responsibility placed on all departments to provide DFP with the necessary data on the application and uptake of flexible working practices in order that the Department can fulfil a central monitoring role effectively. (paragraph 170)
15. The Committee firmly believes that implementation of the Inquiry recommendations will support the delivery of a range of the Executive’s existing policies and priorities, including:
- the NICS People Strategy 2013-16 commitments on using technology to support a flexible workforce and on creating workplaces conducive to high performance;
- the Programme for Government commitment to further reduce the levels of sickness absence across the NICS;
- the Measuring Wellbeing Initiative;
- the consolidation of the NICS estate and realising office accommodation savings, including under the Executive’s Asset Management Strategy; and
- the wider public sector reform agenda. (paragraph 178)
1 Lake, A. (2013), “Smart Flexibility: Moving Smart and Flexible Working from Theory to Practice”, Gower Publishing, Surrey, p.207.