Andrew Bibby



Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Flexible Working, 2000

Surrey County Council pioneers new ways of working

Of all the local authorities, Surrey County Council has perhaps stuck its neck out furthest when it comes to developing a flexible working programme. The council’s Surrey Workstyle initiative, formally adopted in the Spring of 1998, is an ambitious project which - as well as promoting changes in employee working methods - also involves a major property rationalisation programme and a radical overhaul of Surrey’s use of ICT. Big money is involved - capital expenditure alone is likely to approach £25m. Reputations are also riding on Surrey Workstyle’s success, not least that of Surrey’s energetic Chief Executive Paul Coen who has strongly backed the initiative.

It’s appropriate therefore to ask how Surrey is progressing, more than two years into the implementation of Workstyle.

First impressions might suggest that very little has, in practice, happened. Many of Surrey’s desk-bound staff continue to commute in each day to the authority’s architectural impressive but old-fashioned County Hall (located in Kingston which, thanks to a quirk in 1960s local government reorganisation, is now not even within Surrey’s actual geographical area). Many others work in the network of smaller offices spread across the county, more than seventy in all, which Workstyle is supposed to be rationalising.

Initial staff interest in the initiative (which was encouraged by an extensive consultation exercise carried out in 1998) has subsided, and some councillors also appear to be beginning to be turning wobbly. It hasn’t helped that the costs of implementing Workstyle have grown steadily in the months and years since 1998 (though, to be fair, so also have the estimated overall cost savings of the programme). But the question has to be asked: are the fine business principles on which the original Workstyle proposals were based turning out to be rather more difficult than envisaged to realise in practice?

The short answer, according to Nigel Hannam who is Workstyle’s Programme Director is that, whilst there have been delays in negotiating leases on Surrey’s new network of area offices, in general Workstyle is fully on timetable. Councillors received a detailed update in March this year, which assured them that ‘significant progress on implementation has been made’ and also included details of progress towards about fifty high-level implementation milestones. In almost every case the report suggested that the milestones (relating to property, ICT, human resources, training and development, finance, communications and programme management) had either already been met or were on target to be met.

A longer answer, however, demands a closer look at exactly what Surrey is hoping to achieve with its Workstyle initiative. This in turn involves returning at least two years, to the original policy paper submitted by the Chief Executive in February 1998 to the powerful Policy and Finance Committee.

Surrey says that Workstyle is one of three strands in the authority’s overall Development Plan. It complements work which the council is undertaking to develop Best Value practices (for ‘providing better service for customers and communities’) and also its ‘people strategy’, based on better management and support for staff. Workstyle itself is summarised as promoting the ‘better use of time, space and technology’.

Of these, arguably space considerations were and are the most important driver behind Workstyle. It is thanks to the anticipated savings in property costs that the initiative is viable in business terms, and in particular that the considerable expenditure on ICT (£10m at the latest count) can be contemplated. The business case initially suggested that Workstyle would involve capital expenditure of £18.6m, covered by capital savings of £21.9m (the bulk of these property related). These figures have recently been revised upwards to £24.4m and £30.6m respectively, which would produce a healthy £6m net capital saving. At the same time, there are anticipated revenue savings, which according to the revised figures should work out at about £0.75m a year.

Surrey employs in total about 23,000 staff to service its one million residents. Workstyle affects 3,500 of these staff, currently working out of 74 separate buildings. (Other employees who are not directly affected include, for example, all the county’s school teachers and firefighters). The initial Workstyle proposal envisaged replacing these 74 properties with thirty-one buildings, comprising County Hall, four new Area Offices and a network of twenty-six local offices. Since then, the need for local offices has been reassessed, and Surrey has now revised the new property requirements down to 21, comprising County Hall, the four area offices and sixteen local offices. Local offices, typically for use primarily by social services teams, are where possible being co-located with other public bodies or agencies such as district councils or health authorities.

With the framework for its new property structure in place, the sometimes slow work of implementing the arrangements is now progressing. Three of the four area offices (in Leatherhead, Guildford and Reigate) are to be leased by the county, whilst the fourth area office is planned for a county-owned site in Chertsey, formerly a secondary school. Leatherhead will be the first area office to be occupied: it is currently being fitted out, with the first teams (from trading standards, social services, education personnel and community services) expected to move in in mid-May this year. Reigate involves a fifteen-month new build project, with the operational date set for September 2001. Negotiations to lease an existing office block in Guildford are currently continuing with occupancy proposed for December 2001, whilst the Chertsey area office (also a new build) is awaiting planning consent and is therefore further away from realisation.

Meanwhile, major changes are planned at County Hall, with moves from cellular office accommodation to open-plan space. One problem is that, since the building is listed, substantial internal changes have to be negotiated with English Heritage. Surrey currently anticipates that the first two County Hall teams to move to their new Workstyle accommodation (the Chief Executive’s Office and the Legal & Committee Service) will do so by the end of 2000, English Heritage permitting. The full implementation of changes at County Hall is not expected before Spring 2003.

Clearly, therefore, the property rationalisation on which Workstyle is based is a lengthy process, and it will be some time before the changes envisaged are implemented. When completed, Surrey expects to have moved from a situation where staff on average occupy 330 sq ft to one where occupancy is 120 sq ft per member of staff. An overall ratio of four workstations to five staff is planned. Staff will have their own filing drawer, and will be able to access the files and information they need from any PC.

The property changes are only one aspect of the Workstyle programme, however. Workstyle also aims to achieve savings and greater efficiency through more flexible use by employees of their time, and a range of flexible working options, including contractually-based homeworking and occasional homeworking, are planned. The aim is partly to reduce travel and commuting pressures on the county’s roads system.

Surrey worked in collaboration with BT to present these ideas to its staff. A consultation booklet issued in 1998 put it like this:

Changing working patterns

Once upon a time:

  • People went to ‘the office’ because that was where they could access the information they needed to do their jobs.

NOW that place is anywhere on the ICT network.

  • They were there from nine till five because they were closely supervised.

NOW staff are trusted and enabled, many have care responsibilities at home and customers want services and information at times to suit them.

  • Working people expected their own desk at ‘head office’ even if they were often out-and-about.

NOW that can be an expensive and unnecessary luxury.

In recent years, a combination of factors has transformed the life of the workplace for many if not most people… People now have better access to corporate and service information systems, their clients, customers and their colleagues while working in different places. It also means that they can be contacted just as easily wherever they are working.

How has the introduction of new ways of working progressed since 1998? The Workstyle team is keen to point out that the introduction of flexible working practices doesn’t have to await the conclusion of the property rationalisation process but inevitably, some departments have responded more enthusiastically to the idea than others. According to Nigel Hannam, social services has been particularly responsive, with social services teams encouraged to produce their own ‘team flexible working plans’. Trading standards is already ahead, having cut back from the four offices previously used to one central office in the mid 1990s.

To spur on the development of flexible working across the authority, a set of detailed ‘Go Ahead’ fact sheets has recently been produced and sent to each of the 3,500 or so members of staff affected by Workstyle. These fact sheets cover:

  • Flexible working hours
  • Occasional homeworking
  • Working permanently at home
  • Health and safety for flexible working
  • Training and development.

As regards flexible hours, the fact sheet suggests a number of options for consideration: staggered hours, flexi-time with or without recording, nine day fortnights and four day weeks, and trust time working. The council says that its aims in encouraging flexible working hours are:

  • to offer a better service to our customers
  • to make Surrey County Council a better place to work
  • to reflect what is happening in our society
  • to make better use of the resources available to us
  • to support the aims of the Company Transport Plan

Needless to say, moves to flexible hours requires negotiation with and agreement by an employee’s manager. Managers are advised to ensure that enough opportunities remain for team communication and for development and training.

For homeworking, Surrey draws a sharp distinction between occasional (non-contractual) working from home and permanent working at home, which the council says is likely only to affect a small number of employees.

Occasional homeworking (described as ‘the opportunity to work from home on an ‘as and when’ basis’) is a relatively informal arrangement. Surrey does not offer to provide equipment for home use, though some teams may have a pool of laptop computers available and exceptionally managers may choose to provide PCs from departmental funds. Home PCs may be used if they have compatible software which is properly licensed and on the strict understanding that they have up-to-date anti-virus software.

Surrey says that it does not envisage occasional homeworkers being able to connect to their LANs in the foreseeable future, and it suggests that documents which will be worked on at home are transferred to floppy disc. Internal emails can be sent using home PC comms software; sending external work emails from home is not permitted.

As regards telephones, the council reimburses the cost of calls made for work purposes from home, and suggests a BT Chargecard as a convenient way to arrange this. For incoming calls, again the emphasis is on informal arrangements: ‘You could be set up with voice mail and say, in your recorded greeting, that you will check frequently for messages… You could switch your telephone through to another team member (as long as they agree!), and ask them to pass on messages to you’. Virtual telephone numbers are also offered as an option (‘depending on your circumstances, it may be worth consideration by your service’).

The fact sheet also reminds occasional homeworkers of the health and safety and security issues to consider. Staff who have used home PCs to work on confidential documents (even if the documents have been deleted) are required before selling or disposing of the PC to contact a council ICT support person for advice in ensuring that the data does not remain on the hard disc.

The arrangements for permanent homeworking are, as would be expected, more formal. The ‘Go Ahead’ fact sheet sets down a number of ground rules for employees and their managers, including the following:

  • Your manager will decide whether you can work at home on a permanent basis within the context of service requirements
  • To guard against the damaging effects of working excessive hours, you must abide by the Working Time Regulations and relevant health and safety legislation…
  • Managers are expected to discuss with team members their expectations and requirements for flexible working hours and locations. In determining these, the needs of the service are paramount.
  • You must tell your household insurer that you are working from home on a permanent basis. The Council will not pay any additional costs incurred for insurance in your home.
  • Always make sure you use any special security measures you have at home, for example, lockable filing cabinets, window locks etc.

Surrey provides ICT equipment (PC and printer, and fax and copier if appropriate) for permanent home-based workers, and prohibits use of privately-owned home equipment for work purposes. Existing Surrey owned laptops are also not acceptable for permanent home working, partly on health and safety grounds and partly because laptops are deemed to be more expensive to support. ICT support is provided at home, provided the home is not more than fifteen miles from County Hall or an area office.

Surrey does not offer any additional payment for heat/light, wear and tear or opportunity costs associated with working from home, arguing instead that staff benefit from reduced travel time and costs and from a better home/work balance and that homeworking is not imposed on a mandatory basis. Dedicated work telephone lines and handsets are provided if appropriate — Surrey says that this will be the case only for ‘a few’ permanent homeworkers.

A number of training courses are provided for teams and individuals moving towards flexible working. These include, for teams, three one-day workshops:

  • Moving to Workstyle — plan
  • Implementing Workstyle — do
  • Improving our Workstyle — review

And for individuals:

  • The effective flexible worker (one day module)
  • The effective flexible support worker (half-day module)
  • Health and safety for workstyle (half-day module, mandatory)

There are also a series of twelve two-hour modules covering ICT skills, including subjects such as Word, Excel, Lotus Notes, the Surrey intranet and the Internet.

Surrey has already had some useful experience of flexible working arrangements, through its development of a telecentre in Epsom. This building opened in September 1996, originally on a six months’ pilot basis which was then extended indefinitely. It occupies the ground floor of an old building in the centre of Epsom, and includes a small open-plan area with

space for eight people (six workstations with PCs and two desks for laptops), a conference/meeting room, three smaller rooms and a touch-down area with comfortable chairs. The telecentre also has kitchen facilities, photocopier and fax machine, and is staffed by a support officer.

The telecentre was set up on an initial budget of about £90,000, and was designed for use on an informal basis by all Surrey employees (and in theory though rarely in practice, by councillors as well). Part of the thinking at the time was to help reduce the time which staff spent driving to and from Kingston, which at rush hours in particular can be very congested.

The Epsom telecentre has attracted considerable external attention and has certainly been successful in gaining useful publicity for the council. In terms of usage, it has probably fair to say that it has successfully met a small niche demand. Trading standards and social services staff tend to be the main users, though Nigel Hannam reports that some teachers have also made use of the centre as a convenient access point for the Internet. Interestingly, the meeting room has also proved a popular facility.

The Epsom telecentre is now rapidly approaching the end of its life. It will be closed this summer, when Surrey opens a local office in the Town Hall using space leased from Epsom Borough Council. When it closes, the idea of separate telecentres will also disappear from the agenda in Surrey: instead, the council is arranging for each local office to be designed to have temporary touch-down and hot-desking facilities for casual use by staff. Effectively, the telecentre idea is now being incorporated back into the mainstream area and local office network.

If Workstyle involves better utilisation of time and space, the third component is the more effective use of ICT. Here Surrey, like other large local authorities, faces the task of pulling back together a wide variety of independent LANs set up and operated departmentally.

The overall aim of the investment in ICT, which as we have seen is substantial, was defined in the 1998 committee report which launched Workstyle as follows:

[to support] every workstation in each building with a standard IT and communications package allowing staff to access their files and data from any workstation, and to receive telephone calls on their personal number at any telephone

The idea is to use ‘roving profiles’: each member of staff will input an ID and password when first using a PC, and the monitor will automatically be configured to the desktop format and software provision with which that individual is familiar and authorised to use. Access to databases will also be controlled in the same way.

As any organisation which has instituted wide-ranging ICT reforms will know, it can be a challenge to manage the process of change. Surrey is at present at the point in the process where it is about to put out to tender its requirements for the new WAN, with the completed arrangements due to be up and running by the end of this year. (This means, among other things, that a temporary ICT fix has had to be devised for the Leatherhead area office, when it opens this year). Advice from Novell has been sought in relation to the roving profiles requirement. Surrey has also worked informally with BT since the beginning of the Workstyle project.

Although an investment of approaching £10m in ICT might seem extravagant, Nigel Hannam points out that a substantial element of this expenditure (perhaps £6m) would have been necessary in any case, Workstyle or no Workstyle.

Overseeing the implementation of Surrey Workstyle is the Workstyle Board, which meets every six to eight weeks. It is chaired by a senior councillor and includes four other elected members; on the officers side sit Paul Coen, Chief Executive, and the Directors of Corporate Development, Finance, and Social Services. David Lennan, Director of Corporate Development, has particular responsibility for Workstyle. His post was created in 1998 partly to relieve the Chief Executive of some of the pressures of implementing the project; David Lennan himself was recruited from the private sector, where he had been responsible for a series of change management programmes for NatWest.

Below the Workstyle Board, operational management is in the hands of the Workstyle Project Board, a ten-strong team which meets every 4-6 weeks. Nigel Hannam, as Programme Director, has responsibility for the overall programme direction and management. Also in the team are a Property programme manager, ICT programme manager, HR programme manager (with a brief which includes training and development), and representatives from key departments: the Chief Executive’s Office, Education & Community Services, Environment, Social Services, Trading Standards, and the Surrey Fire and Rescue Service. Project managers have been appointed or are being appointed to take particular responsibility for the four area offices, the County Hall changes and the local offices network.

Surrey Workstyle is clearly an ambitious project, with wide-ranging implications for the way the authority operates and delivers its services. About half way through the project time-scale, what lessons does the council feel it has learned? A recent briefing to partner local authorities in the County Councils Network offers three interim conclusions:

  • Surrey Workstyle is not a quick win. We have been moving at a steady pace towards the goals we have set ourselves and have had to be flexible enough to allow for the evolution of Surrey Workstyle without losing sight of our aims
  • Support, guidance and good communication with all our stakeholders is vital to the success of Surrey Workstyle
  • The benefits of Surrey Workstyle so far are that staff at all levels are more engaged in the process by producing flexible work plabs and considering the content of the Go Ahead guides in relation to present and future work practices. Managers are focusing on the outcomes which will provide further improvement in customer service.

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