The future of work in councils during and post Covid 19

Many people refer to Councils as just being about ‘Roads, Rates and Rubbish’ – it’s a very simplistic view, but how will views of councils be different in the future?  Who really knows, but CouncilJobs is thinking about the question and would like to stimulate discussion on the topic. The Covid-19 Pandemic affects councils and their staff just as seriously as the private sector, yet councils so far have not been considered in Federal or State government assistance packages, leaving many concerned for their ongoing viability.

Councils across this country come in many sizes and it may be appropriate to look at the question from this scale perspective, from the biggest - Brisbane City council supporting a population of almost one million spread over 1,367 sq. kms with a staff of 8233 through to the smallest – Sandstone council in central WA, covering a population of 116 spread over 32,714 sq. kms with a staff of 18. 
Consultation with some council HR professionals reveals that at this stage of the Pandemic;
  • Confusion reigns and all focus is just on getting back to a minimum level of operations in critical areas. Most  councils are involved in providing critical local and remote community services such as child day care, aged care and other community health services. Without these services, whole communities suffer, so councils have prioritised being operational in these areas, despite social distancing and essential services rules.
  • Councils are desperate to see/copy what may be working for others, to shortcut getting back to minimum operations. Councils are well organised into National, State and local networks and are very supportive of each other in tough times – freely sharing information and other resources, so they are very open to sharing useful new approaches.
  • Council staff have had to significantly adapt their roles to locally enforce Social distancing and public gathering rules, e.g. Beach Lifeguards have had to assist police maintain social distancing rules on beaches and in parks.
  • Customer services, Libraries, recreation centres and other council facilities have mostly been closed, casual and associated permanent staff either stood down or terminated
  • Council resources, infrastructure, policies and procedures are ill-equipped for WFH (Working from Home)
  • Almost no-one is thinking about WFA being the new normal for the medium to longer term. 
Maybe this time is an opportunity for the council sector to redefine itself, embrace change and be able to be even more resilient to anything like this in the future? One thing is certain – the longer this (the changes to how council workplaces operate) goes on, the greater is the likelihood that council workplaces will be changed forever. 

Considering the composition of councils’ workforce, WFH is not an option for up to half of Councils’ workforces who are ‘Outdoor’ workers. Councils are generally divided into Indoor (Professional, Finance, Administration, Services) or Outdoor (Works, Roads, Parks, Building). Depending generally on the size of the council, between 55% and 70% of staff are indoor workers, where the smaller the council, the smaller is the proportion of outdoor workers. 

Looking at each of these areas individually, how their work practices are being affected and the changes that are being observed during these ‘isolationist’ times, the effects are not uniform. Not all Indoor roles can support WFA, at least in the short term. Issues here include remote access to IT resources, access to licensed software and secure databases, call centre operations plus workflow processes and policies. 

Outdoor workers who typically operate from Works depots and whose roles typically involve staff working together in closely managed crews or ‘gangs’ of between two and ten are struggling to function within Social distancing and Public gathering limits. They are often now operating with skeleton crews where older ‘at risk’ workers are not being required to attend work at all and younger workers are attending to only ‘critical’ tasks and infrastructure maintenance. 

Regarding internal staff moves and external recruitment during this time, the current situation in most councils is that total freezes have been implemented on any new internal moves or external hiring, although Regional and Rural councils who are currently less affected by Covid-19 seem to be continuing to advertise some key roles. It is unclear when this situation might change as there are a number of roadblocks that need to be cleared including;
1. WFH framework including processes for;
  • Decision-making
  • Time management/time keeping
  • Task/responsibility delegation
  • Documented WFH policies and procedures
  • Communications within teams, within organisations and with external stakeholders
2. Stakeholder agreement (including unions) to adopting new recruitment practices including 100% of interviews being by video conferencing including panel interviews
3. Trust in new remote team members

There are other perspectives from which we could look at this question, and each approach only raises even more issues to be addressed; 
Financial – considering viability, scale, local economics and commercial operations, 
Cultural – considering the role in the local community, ethnicity of the population and workforce, 
Purpose – considering the scope and number of services councils provide,
Demographic – considering age and other characteristics of the council residents and workforce, and 
Density – how urbanised is the population in the council?

From all this, it can be interpreted that there is a mountain of work for councils to do to make the transition to WFH successful in the medium to longer term. Given councils’ aversion to change generally, it could be expected that only the most ambitious leadership teams could pull this off, so expect most to try to stay within the established framework for the way things have always operated up to now. Regardless, there are many more unanswered questions here. 
Tony Miller Director, CouncilJobs

What do you think?


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