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Andy Lake


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Smart working in Whitehall – and what it means for HR


As the election approaches, we’ll hear more and more about government ‘efficiency savings’. Big holes in the parties’ ‘costed proposals’ will be filled by this kind of seemingly inexhaustible manifesto polyfilla. But what is really going on in reforming the way government works?

Across all parts of central government there are concerted moves towards ‘Smart Working’. This is a more strategic and business-focused approach to flexible working. It involves changes to property, technology, and where, when and how civil servants work.

Each department has its own programme, and collectively they are supported by the Cabinet Office through their ‘The Way We Work’ (TW3) programme. I was commissioned to write the official guidance on implementing smart working in government in 2014.

The Way We Work – A Guide to Smart Working in Government sets out a vision for government that incorporates much more mobility and flexibility, electronic processes, online collaboration and virtual meetings.  Fewer offices are used more intensively, and redesigned so that people work in a range of settings for different activities rather than ranks of individually assigned desks.

The aim is greater effectiveness and much more efficient use of resources – and therefore of taxpayers’ money. All this is central to the government’s Efficiency and Reform programme, headed up by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude.

Key principles of Smart Working in central government include:

  • Work takes place at the most effective locations and times – not necessarily in the office
  • The traditional meetings culture is replaced by ‘simplified collaboration and connectivity virtually everywhere’
  • A ‘Flexibility First’ approach with flexibility as the norm rather than the exception
  • Space is allocated to activities, not individuals and not on the basis of seniority
  • Managing performance focuses on results and outcomes rather than presence.

This is not simply aspiration. The guide includes 10 case studies from government departments that are making significant progress in Smart Working. They cover examples of modernised ways of working using new technologies, mobile and home-based working, innovative Smart Working environments, and significant reductions in costs and in the carbon footprint of work.

Coming next will be more in the way of sharing premises between departments and with other public sector agencies around the country, with public sector ‘hubs’ and possibly the use of private sector workhubs and co-working spaces too.

What does all this mean for HR?

In major transformation projects, it’s all too easy for the very visible, expensive and often complex changes to property and technology to take centre stage. They often generate arguments, controversy and scepticism. But in reality, effective change depends on people embracing change. It involves changing assumptions, behaviours and mindset, and being positive that the changes made will enhance working life.

This is where the People functions need to take a lead. It’s not all about creating policies and protocols – it’s about leading and supporting people through the changes, supporting managers and teams to work in new ways. It’s also about helping the Smart Working ethos to ripple through into other areas such as leadership development and recruitment.

These kinds of changes are not always easy. It requires thinking in new ways, rather than trying to shoe-horn habitual ways of working about work into new physical and virtual work environments. ‘Flexibility as normal’, for example, involves challenging many of the assumptions about how, where and when work is done – and that can be a step too far for some.

Smart working is not about working in the same as yesterday, only slightly modified. Changes in the tools and environment for work are set to continue changing rapidly in the coming years. So we need to look forward and plan for the changes that will come on stream over the next decade.

These will include new and more immersive forms of collaboration (e.g. 3D and graphic conferencing, larger and more interactive screens), new business social media applications, ambient computing (i.e. working in intelligent environments), much more process work becoming automated and work becoming ever more mobile.

The result is that over the next ten years we may see government workplaces evolving towards a ‘bureauless bureaucracy’. The focus then is on people and their work, wherever they are, rather than sitting at desks in offices, doing process work.

Though politicians have been getting on board, these changes in government owe most to innovative and energetic civil servants who have been encouraging and supporting change over many years – for some time as voices in the wilderness. These efforts have now come together in a strategic programme supporting the changes.

Much of the focus of their efforts is now on supporting people through the changes with practical support and training, including new e-learning courses on Smart Working and collaboration through the Smart Work Network. This network is a peer collaboration network for people in large organisations implementing Smart Working, which emerged in part from government circles seven years ago.

There are constraints, of course. Despite endorsement from the top, the culture of working around ministers and Parliament tends to the archaic. And there is much still to be modernised in terms of technology and making processes all-electronic. But the momentum is there, and moves to Smart Working are delivering a wide range of measurable benefits. I trust this will continue, whichever party or coalition is at the helm after May.

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