Thursday, July 23, 2015

How important is geographic location for a digitalised public sector workforce?

Canberra is full of large buildings full of public servants, all working together on a daily basis to serve the needs of government and the community.

While some can work remotely, from their home or on the road, there's still significant barriers to teleworking in the public service.

Whether it's the need to install a secure connection in a person's home, check the OH&S layout of their kitchens or simply a reluctance on the part of managers to allow staff to work outside their sight.

While companies like Cisco have had a hotdesking approach for many years, with staff able to go into any office, sit at any desk and start working with full access to their digital files and phone, only a few government agencies have recently made it possible to hotdesk within their own environment.

There's no clear pathway for any Australian Public Servant to sit at any desk in any government office and work effectively without complex and time-consuming IT steps (if it's possible at all).

There's a large and growing productivity cost to this kind of IT inflexibility.

From the huge ICT costs  in moving workers and changing system access that's involved when governments rip agencies apart and put them back together in different configurations during Machinery of Government changes, to the lost opportunities to employ the best person for a job because they don't live - and won't move - to a specific geographic region, governments are increasingly being shoehorned into a lose-lose situation where their technical environments damage their ability to deliver outcomes.

I've had significant experience in teleworking. In the late-90s, while living in Sydney, I was also lead designer on a commercial game developed by a team in Adelaide, that I met in person a total of once.

When working for a start-up at the turn of the century, nominally in an office in Sydney, I also regularly travelled and worked from the UK, Singapore and the US.

Into the 2000s I wrote books and articles for a range of publications from my home, my local playground (having young kids), or pretty much any location where I had access to technology and close proximity to an internet connection.

After moving to Canberra I cofounded an oil exploration company with someone who soon moved to Sydney. We established a board with Directors based across Australia and in Asia, and employed a team in Texas to explore an oil field in the US, with almost all of the company's business conducted online.

However when I look at roles in government today (particularly some of the interesting digital roles that have popped up in recent times), they still require an individual to be physically situated near a specific office. Some even offer to help pay people to relocate their entire lives to be closer to these jobs. There's a little more leeway for senior executives, who might get assisted accommodation and travel to allow them to work a city away from where they live.

Sure there's still many people normalised into working in the same office with the same people every day. However there's a growing number who've learnt the art of working anywhere, building and managing remote teams and achieving bodacious goals.

Certainly there's roles that require a physical presence - face-to-face customer service (when not delivered digitally over screens), inspectors and jobs that involve moving physical goods from place to place (until robots and remotely controlled drones take over).

However I'm hard pressed to think of many other roles in government that actually require staff to be physically present in the same office all the time. Policy development, program development and delivery, grant management, communications, IT, HR, Finance, phone and online customer service, briefing Ministers and stakeholder engagement - all these roles could be delivered effectively remotely with appropriate technology, security and mindsets.

In some of these roles there may be some need to physically meet one's colleagues, customers and stakeholders for some of the time, but none require workers to all live in one geographic location, to work in one office, often in one big room like battery hens.

There's also many roles where mobility is a distinct advantage - anyone working on a whole-of-government taskforce, or who regularly meets stakeholders, moves between offices for meetings, or has a distributed team. These people would gain enormously from being able to work wherever they happen to be.

So how important is geographic location for a digitalised public sector workforce?

Objectively it's no longer important at all.

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