South Ribble and Chorley councils are unlikely ever to return to the way they operated prior to the pandemic, with both authorities aiming to have no more than half of their office-based staff working on council premises at once.
The move is part of a radical overhaul of the working practices at the neighbouring authorities, which already share many of their behind-the-scenes back office functions and senior officers.
The two districts have set out a vision for a post-Covid world in which “work is now seen as a thing we do, rather than a place we go”.
The cabinets of each authority recently agreed a new workplace strategy, designed to enable staff in suitable roles to work more flexibly, spending at least some of their time at home – as has been required during the pandemic – while maintaining standards of service and performance.
It is hoped that the move will improve levels of job satisfaction by helping workers to achieve a better work/life balance.
However, some Chorley councillors expressed concern that the workplace revolution could hit businesses in the town centre who rely on council staff for a large proportion of their trade.
Conservative member Cllr Alan Cullens warned that the policy would “take a significant number of people out of the town”.
“I think we need to look at…the impact on the local economy,” he added.
Chorley Council leader Alistair Bradley said that the aim would be to rent out any vacated space for other purposes.
“We would look to be encouraging others to locate in Chorley for that very reason [to support the local economy].
“That would add to our commercial portfolio. There is demand for office space in Chorley town centre – therefore, if we’re not using it, we’d want somebody else to be using it,” Cllr Bradley said.
Chorley Council currently generates £85,000 a year by hiring out office space, while South Ribble Council brings in £63,000 by leasing some of its redundant office areas.
South Ribble’s cabinet meeting on the subject heard that the authority receives regular requests for use of its Civic Centre headquarters in Leyland.
Deputy leader Mick Titherington said that finding alternative uses for empty offices would be “the least [thing] to worry about”.
However, he did caution against some of the downsides to decamping completely from an office environment.
“Often, an employee might think they can get more work done at home, but, equally, you miss that camaraderie and the social intercourse – being able to discuss things that are going on and…identify as a team,” Cllr Titherington said.
His cabinet colleague, member for finance Matthew Tomlinson, said that most staff would relish the opportunity to combine both home and office-based working modes
“[They] are looking forward to…having the opportunity to say, ‘I do want to go into the office, I do want to meet with my colleagues and my managers – but I can work from home one or two days a week and I welcome not having to sit in my car for 45 minutes each way to do what I could be doing in the spare bedroom at home’,” Cllr Tomlinson said.
According to a staff survey, 93 percent of employees at the two councils would consider working from home some or all of the time if they were given the opportunity. The main advantage was seen as not having to commute, with 58 percent of respondents highlighting that as a benefit.
However, 48 percent of workers said that access to the necessary technology could hamper home working.
As part of the workplace strategy, the councils aim to ensure that their systems mean staff can work “seamlessly [and] efficiently from any location”.
Four new categories of employee will be created – those almost entirely office-based, mobile workers who operate in the field and come into the office only when necessary, largely home-based staff and new hybrid workers, who split their time between locations according to the needs of the council.
Gary Hall, chief executive of both authorities, said that it was important to get the balance right under the new arrangements, which would be subject to constant review.
He told South Ribble’s cabinet meeting that any changes would need to demonstrate that they were “effective” for the council at which they were being implemented.
“I have heard a number of [councillors] say: ‘I found it quite difficult to get hold of that person’. That’s not acceptable – when we work in a hybrid way, we have to fix some of the issues that emerged during the pandemic.
“Some of it will require commitment from staff to work in a completely different way – it will need them to commit to ensure that the level of service that we give to both residents and to members is…acceptable.
“We’ve got to accept that there are some significant benefits to the organisation(s) of being in the office – things like developing relationships, There are some people who have started [work at the councils] who I’ve never met – and that feels really bizarre.
“That personal contact, I think, is really important. It’s also important in terms of thinking about new people – particularly younger people – how do they learn things?” Mr. Hall asked.
Although the councils are expecting to accommodate only half of their staff at any one time, use of flexible spaces such as quiet zones and collaborative areas means that more workers will be able to attend simultaneously. Chorley Council will develop the town hall into its main working location. Its Union Street offices currently cost £100,000 a year to operate.
Cllr Bradley said that the changes could also give his authority more of a presence in Chorley’s villages by allowing staff to base themselves in community facilities rather than the town centre.
However, he warned that a revamped working set-up would take some getting used to – and would not be possible for all staff.
“Performance is an issue – working from home is different [to] working in the office, where you have colleagues and management around you. Working from the office when you’re manager is working from home is also very different,” Cllr Bradley added.
What are other councils planning?
Lancashire County Council says that it is getting ready for a staff return to buildings such as County Hall after more than 18 months during which many have worked remotely. However, working life at the authority will not be entirely as it was pre-pandemic.
Deputy leader Alan Vincent said: “Our corporate office spaces are being prepared for re-occupation in an incremental and controlled way to ensure they are safe and meet our service and customer needs appropriately.
“In the next few weeks we are also set to pilot a new scheme which will enable staff to book touchdown areas, meeting rooms and team spaces in key council buildings, giving them more choice about where they work and ensuring they can do so more agilely.
“We are very proud of the way our staff have continued to deliver our services during the pandemic, often under really difficult and pressured circumstances, and believe they have been a credit to Lancashire.”
Meanwhile, Preston City Council said it was still planning its post-pandemic arrangements.
Chief executive Adrian Phillips said that the council had adopted a “safety first” approach throughout the pandemic.
“Many of our operational staff need to be in their office or out on site to continue delivering our services to the residents and businesses of Preston.
“We are currently reviewing the position moving forward on the basis of safety and service delivery – and this is likely to be some form of hybrid arrangement. Discussions with managers and staff are continuing.”
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