Smart Working Strategy
Members considered a report of Councillor Joyce Plummer, Portfolio Holder for Resources, seeking approval for a Smart Working Strategy.
Councillor Plummer indicated that staff had continued to work throughout the pandemic and that this had presented big challenges, particularly during lockdown and with other restrictions in place. Most staff had been able to come into the workplace. Others had set up desks at home and were working in a different way. ICT had supported staff being able to work from home. The Government’s advice to work from home during the Omicron wave had now been lifted. Overall it was felt that hybrid working had been successful with improved business continuity arrangements and improved sickness absence management. The draft Smart Working Strategy set out the proposed priorities for the Council and its workforce. In the longer term this could provide benefits in terms of reduced journeys, more virtual meetings and a review of the Council’s property assets.
Councillor Marlene Haworth commented that the Conservative Group had some concerns about the strategy presented. She indicated that there were difficulties in contacting officers within certain teams and sometimes responses were slow. Any delay made the councillor’s relationship with the public more difficult. At Prime Minister’s Question Time today Boris Johnson MP had indicated that all COVID restrictions were likely to be lifted in around one month. There was a feeling that introducing a more flexible working strategy at the moment would be moving too quickly. It remained important for councillors to meet with officers face to face. There was broad consent for the ethos of smart working, but not at this pace. It was reported that some staff who could not work from home because of their roles were already critical of those who could do so. Also, the on-going use of meetings on Zoom or Teams did not allow for natural communication and personal contact. The Leader commented that all modern employers were shifting towards a better work-life balance for their employees. This improved productivity and helped to recruit staff. Many frontline roles within the Council such as Refuse Collection of Grass Cutting would be unaffected. However, the Council now operated in a digital world which allowed more flexibilities in some service areas.
Councillor Britcliffe added that there was a case for returning to normal working arrangements and for meeting face to face. There was also a need to support the local lunchtime and retail economy by repopulating offices in the town centre. The Leader commented that before the pandemic staff might be unavailable for drop in visits due to other meeting commitments and appointments should normally have been made. On the question of local businesses, those private sector staff working from home rather than in the city would add to the local economy, balancing up any loss of footfall from Council staff. The proposed Manchester congestion charge might also make journeys to the city less attractive. Councillor Plummer commented that Members could use the telephone functionality on Microsoft Teams to contact staff directly wherever their location.
Councillor Howarth reported that Hyndburn Leisure staff based at the Town Hall were frequently disturbed by members of the public seeking access to the Council’s Contact Centre on Broadway for Benefits or other advice. Many of these individuals had no access to mobile phones or the internet to use on-line services. The Leader reminded Members that the drive for more digital services had come from Central Government. Councillor Plummer added that the public hall in the Contact Centre had been altered to a telephone only service long before the pandemic. The new corporate Reception at Scaitcliffe House would provide a mixture of digital and face to face services when it opened shortly. The Leader asked officers to arrange a site visit to the Reception for elected Members to view the new facilities.
Approval of the report was not deemed a key decision.
Reasons for Decision
The pandemic had necessitated different ways of working, in particular to apply the working from home guidance which had been in place throughout various periods, from the initial lockdown in March 2020. Homeworking had been a key element in keeping services running and helping to make our workplaces safer for those staff who needed to attend. There had been considerable investment in ICT equipment and infrastructure to support the new arrangements.
All elected members had been invited to a discussion on 7 July 2021. This had included a presentation on the issues to be considered, the pros and cons of hybrid working as reported by staff and service managers, and an update on how staff were actually working. This showed that around 60% of staff were coming into the workplace all the time, including front-line operational staff, as well as some office-based staff. In most cases this was because their role did not allow remote working. About 20% of staff were coming in 2 or 3 days a week, with the rest at home, and the remaining 20% were almost entirely home-based.
On 19 July 2021, the Government’s COVID-19 guidance moved to step 4 of the roadmap, including the dropping of the requirement to work from home wherever possible. Since then, the Council had asked staff to come into the workplaces for a minimum of 2 or 3 days per week, providing COVID-secure arrangements were maintained. This had been reversed for a short period while “Plan B” restrictions were in place. Management would continue to make decisions that were informed by national guidance.
It had been agreed in July 2021 that a small working group would be set up to consider the issues and determine a way forward. It included the Leader and Portfolio Holder, a further Labour member, the Leader of the Conservative Group plus another Conservative member, 2 Unison representatives, the Head of Policy and Organisational Development and the Head of ICT. This group had met on 3 August and 7 September 2021 and had considered further information, in particular around productivity, safety, communications and likely training needs.
Members had made a decision on 7 September 2021 to recommend retaining hybrid working into the future, and that officers should work with Trade Unions on the policies and practices required to make this work effectively. In particular, officers had been asked to note that there were still concerns about responsive and effective communication.
At its meeting on 15 September 2021, Management Team had agreed the recommendations to develop a Smart Working Strategy with a small officer steering group. This included the Head of Policy and Organisational Development, the Head of ICT, the Regeneration and Property Manager, the Head of Audit and Investigations, the acting Head of Environmental Health and the Safety and Emergency Planning Officer.
The group had developed the draft Strategy now being presented. This included an action plan which captured the individual work elements envisaged, some of which were longer-term actions. This was intended to be a living action plan which would be added to and updated as necessary.
The draft Strategy set out the overall approach and principles. It was likely to be necessary to continue to operate flexibly as the pandemic, any restrictions or identified risk measures changed. The Strategy would also allow the Council to make changes to any ongoing arrangements if service needs required this.
Alternative Options considered and Reasons for Rejection
This proposal sought to implement the recommendation of the Member working group set up to consider future ways of working.
Resolved (1) That Cabinet approves the draft Smart Working Strategy.
(2) That the Smart Working Strategy Group be requested to continue to progress the work identified within the associated action plan and the Executive Director (Legal and Democratic) be given delegated authority to approve updates to the action plan as deemed appropriate.
Councillor Munsif Dad BEM JP declared a personal interest in Agenda Items 8 - Self-Isolation Pilot Programme, 13 - Revenue Budget and 14 - Capital Programme, on the basis of his role as a trustee of Hyndburn Leisure.
- Smart Working Strategy - Main Report, item 250. PDF 209 KB
- Appendix 1 - Draft Smart Working Strategy, item 250. PDF 378 KB