Open plan Civil Service?
Property moves seeing smaller departments leave their current homes and squeeze into the buildings of bigger departments have already been widely publicised, including DCMS having moved in with HM Revenue and Customs and DCLG preparing to join the Home Office. What is largely unreported however is the effect of such moves on the morale and management of public servants already facing the political challenge of transformational change in their daily work.
Design of the work environment is a relatively under-developed aspect of managing the Civil Service. It is true that large swathes of government have embraced a private sector-inspired drive to open plan working in the interests of greater communication and teamwork as well as lower property costs. Alongside some increases in working remotely, as trailed in the Civil Service Reform Plan, it is likely that those smaller departments on the move will be forced into high-density open plan spaces so that everyone can be fitted in and any available space maximized.
But one has to ask whether such lowest-common-denominator office schemes based on a time-and-motion efficiency of space use are the most useful in the long run. In the parlance of workplace designers, many civil servants can classically be termed as ‘knowledge workers’. That means they enjoy high degrees of personal autonomy and interaction with others, and rely on prior learning, experience and qualifications. While many civil servants do work in policy teams, the majority of their tasks are not collaborative. Quiet and privacy are required to draft policy, for example, and knowledge workers switch tasks frequently.
Many civil servants are not only knowledge workers but also older knowledge workers, with heightened sensitivities to the environment and established ways of working that can come into conflict with the lean, clean-desk policies and constant noise and distraction of the open office factory floor.
We looked closely at life inside a UK pharmaceutical giant, at Japanese technology companies and at the Australian banking sector. Knowledge workers in these sectors require dedicated spaces for concentration and contemplation as well as collaboration. In fact contemplation or ‘rest and recuperation’ space is essential for the health and wellbeing of employers, especially those with extended working lives.
There are further things to be taken into consideration. The ethos of open government has tended to promote working transparently without walls, but there are limits to the extent to which privacy and confidentiality can be compromised within the government workplace. Open layouts might suggest more open access to senior managers for staff and to ministers for civil servants, but some departmental cultures remain at odds with this approach and some ministers do not want to be ‘on show’.
How can a small department maintain its own identity and culture when swallowed up inside the belly of a bigger government beast, such as the Home Office? And what messages does the overall environment transmit about the department’s values?
All of these things require careful thought and sophisticated choreography to design a working environment that is fit for the purpose of government, even if the listed status of some Whitehall buildings adds a further layer of complication of the process. There is now evidence that administrations around the world are resisting knee-jerk reactions to accommodating public servants and thinking hard about this challenge without spending huge sums. It would be a great shame if the UK, a world leader in office design, reverted to workhouse formats for its civil servants when viable alternatives are within reach.