Much has been written about how Covid-19 has transformed our working habits in ways which may become permanent. In 2019, the UK’s Office for National Statistics reported that just over 5% of the workforce worked mainly from home. Aside from key workers and those who have been furloughed or sadly lost their jobs, a new model army of homeworkers has now arisen, though morale amongst the troops varies widely. Those with a reasonable ratio of quiet workspace/time to childcare or other domestic duties may be happy enough. But replicating the informal social interaction which makes work fun, and offering learning opportunities for new or younger colleagues, is hard.
Most public services traditionally rely upon the physical presence of workers: health and education, justice, building and maintaining roads or other public infrastructure, collecting waste and recycling. While virtual GP appointments or court hearings may be possible in some cases, surgery and prison sentences present more of a problem. Amongst the vast range of public sector activities subject to procurement, probably less than half of contracts could be carried out by people working mainly at home. This would include many professional services contracts, but exclude manufactured supplies, works, facilities management etc. A general lack of reliable data on procurement spend, as well as the nuances of individual contracts, makes it difficult to name a precise figure. Nevertheless, it is safe to assume that at some point, the majority of workers employed to fulfil public contracts will need to return to a workplace that isn’t their home. What, if anything, should be different for them?
The most obvious changes are those already being planned or implemented by employers: social distancing at the workplace, protective equipment, improved hygiene, and staggered working hours. Transport to and from work remains a key challenge for many workers, with the success of initiatives to promote walking and cycling highly dependent on the distances being travelled. Here are three ideas for steps public sector bodies can take to help make the return to work safer for workers on contracts they award, while also promoting a shift to improved work-life balance.
1. Pay by outcomes, not by hours worked
Over the past few months, I’ve been participating in the Procurement of Government Outcomes (POGO) group hosted by the GO Lab at Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. The group brings together procurement practitioners, academics, lawyers and others with an interest in social outcomes contracting. Experience and evidence on social impact bonds and other outcomes-based contracts continues to grow, as showcased in a recent special issue of Public Money & Management. Some of this learning has wider applicability to public sector contracts: how to successfully define and measure outcomes, the importance of relationships above and beyond contractual terms, and how to manage unforeseen disruptions such as that brought about by Covid-19. Not every public contract is suitable for outcomes-based payment (also known as payment by results or PbR), and the experience of implementing these contracts has not been universally positive. But even thinking about how a contract – for example cleaning services, consultancy or rehabilitation of offenders – could be reframed in terms of outcomes can help to challenge existing work patterns which may present a heightened risk of virus transmission. The potential benefits in terms of work-life balance and safety for contractor employees could be significant.
2. Reallocate underused resources
While many public services have been stretched to full capacity during the pandemic, others have had to reduce or suspend activity. Near-empty buses and mothballed classrooms and courtrooms may be temporary, but in cases where the transition to virtual working has been a success, physical resources could be freed up permanently. Assuming that social distancing ends eventually and the trend towards increased working from home/mobile working does not, underused resources are likely to include a large amount of office space, often in prime central locations. Can this be leased or allocated to contractors whose staff may struggle to reach their own offices, or who need more space for particular contracted tasks? What about vehicles (often underused in the public sector) which could allow for safer working for contractors with limited fleets of their own? As always, there will be legal and practical hurdles to be overcome, but the current ‘all change’ mentality can help to implement creative solutions.
3. Encourage inclusive new working methods
While working from home poses challenges, it also potentially opens up employment for people who may only be able to commit to reduced hours, or who find centralised workplaces inaccessible due to disability or transport issues. Public contracts need to actively encourage flexible working arrangements which allow contractors to tap into this workforce. There are a still a number of risks to manage around technology, data protection and privacy if we are to expand home working (see discussion here). Many public bodies have already successfully resolved these, and should be prepared to share solutions with contractors where needed. With the EU’s Work-life Balance Directive and other social inclusion measures being implemented, there is a real question as to whether the UK workforce will be left behind as our continental colleagues start to benefit from a more balanced and inclusive approach to work. The cost of this to individuals and society as a whole would be high – and one we can’t afford as we try to rebuild a more sustainable economy.