1 Aberdeenshire Council
This case study examines a programme of flexible working options introduced at Aberdeenshire Council. The programme was aimed at reducing staff commuting mileage through allowing staff to change their working patterns and achieving financial savings through a reduction in the number of council offices. The study considers how financial pressures in an organisation can provide a good opportunity to reflect on work organisation and deliver cash savings alongside environmental sustainability.
1.1 Aberdeenshire is a predominately rural area in the north east of Scotland and it is one of the 32 unitary council areas in Scotland. The Aberdeenshire Council area does not include the City of Aberdeen, which is governed by its own City Council, although the headquarters for Aberdeenshire Council is based in Aberdeen. The area borders Angus and Perth and Kinross to the south and Highland and Moray to the west.
1.2 Aberdeenshire Council was established in April 1996, replacing three District Councils (Banff and Buchan; Gordon; Kincardine and Deeside) and Grampian Regional Council. The Council's Revenue Budget for 2010/11 totalled £550 million and the council employs 14,500 staff, of which a significant proportion commutes into the area from its bordering regions.
Low carbon initiatives
1.3 Low carbon behaviour is a clear corporate objective for the council and it has adopted a number of activities in order to reduce carbon consumption across its estate. The main focus of this case study, which is the initiative currently having the biggest impact across the council, is the Worksmart programme. This is the council's new flexible working programme, which has succeeded in reducing business and commuter mileage. Alongside this initiative, the council is also committed to a programme of office rationalisation, which is being made possible by the savings achieved through the Worksmart programme. This strategy has been termed workSPACE (Smart Provision of Accommodation and the Customer Experience) and will commence in January 2012.
1.4 Aberdeenshire covers 2,500 square miles and the council's staff commute from across the region to their places of work. In 2010, some 10 million commuting miles were made by staff. The Worksmart initiative is about supporting staff to work differently and think about the journeys they are making.
What is Worksmart?
1.5 Worksmart is a new programme of flexible working options. The scheme aims to improve sustainability by reducing the impact on the environment through reducing travel to work mileage and reducing premises costs for lighting and heating through allowing staff to change their working patterns; mainly through home working or working from council offices closer to home.
How does it work?
1.6 The Worksmart programme offers staff four main working pattern 'profiles' to represent different requirements across the council:
- fixed working: staff work at a single place with no requirement for working away from their base;
- flexible working: staff work at a single base for more than 50 per cent of their working time, perhaps working at multiple council locations. They have no requirement for a fixed work station and will work from home or remotely one or two days a week;
- home working: staff spend around 90 per cent of their time working at home, with no requirement to work in the field and are provided with the required ICT to achieve this;
- mobile working: staff work at their base for less than 50 per cent of their working time and have no requirement for a fixed work station, working at multiple council locations and working remotely or at home three days a week.
1.7 Worksmart provides staff with the opportunity to spend less time travelling and more time delivering council services. Due to the introduction of the flexible working patterns, Worksmart is driving a reduction in the number of workstations required across the council estate to a maximum ratio of seven desks per ten FTE employees.
1.8 Staff can voluntarily participate in Worksmart through the completion of an online application form and whilst the scheme is currently voluntary for existing staff; all new vacancies are advertised with a mandatory Worksmart profile.
1.9 Staff are supported to work flexibly using technology such as robust electronic diaries and Instant Messenger. In most instances staff are provided with a laptop or net book depending upon individual requirements. In order to finance this change the employees' fixed PC is swapped for the mobile device and the PC is then re-distributed within the council's ICT estate.
1.10 Key to reducing the council's carbon footprint is the rationalisation of the council's property portfolio and subsequent reductions in energy consumption and business/commuting mileage. The council's workSPACE strategy is driven by the need for a modern, flexible office portfolio to support service delivery and customer service. It encompasses a reduction in the number of smaller council offices which are not fit for purpose, expensive to run or are currently leased by the council. The Council has 98 offices/facilities with running costs of approximately £6 million. WorkSPACE recommends an overall reduction in the portfolio to 53, realising annual savings of £0.92 million across two phases. The council's adoption of Worksmart has made this rationalisation possible as staff in these smaller offices can now work more flexibly, from home or in alternative office premises, perhaps closer to home. The first phase of this change will begin in January 2012.
Process of implementation
1.11 The flowchart below illustrates the process of implementation of the Worksmart programme at Aberdeenshire Council. As the flowchart illustrates, the council received initial guidance on changing working practices from the telecommunications company BT. BT's involvement originated from discussions with the former Director of Personnel & ICT at a conference, which subsequently led to an invitation to present BT's approach to agile working at the Council; a presentation which had the support of the Chief Executive of Aberdeenshire Council. The role of BT was described by the Corporate Improvement and Performance Manager as 'helpful at the outset to provide information for the proof of concept', but it was always thought that Aberdeenshire would need to adapt the lessons learnt from BT to suit their own working environment.
1.12 Over 620 staff took part in Worksmart in the first year and the council is looking to engage 3,500 staff over three years due to the parallel office rationalisation strategy (workSPACE). The programme is now no longer considered optional as it affects all staff. Even if an employee is still a fixed desk worker their colleagues will be working differently so this affects them; it is an inclusive programme.
1.13 Changes to employee work profiles through the adoption of Worksmart requires the reconfiguration of the material context within which staff operate. The workSPACE programme will enable efficiencies from Worksmart to be maximised whilst also creating the flexible working environments which are capable of meeting the requirements of the various work profiles. Condition and suitability assessments were carried out in 2007 which identified scope for reduction in the office portfolio. Utilisation reviews were also conducted in November 2010 which assessed floor area occupied by workstations and reviewed the occupancy of dedicated workstations. It identified that 80 per cent of the council's workstations within operational offices were being occupied between 68 per cent and 99 per cent of the working day, therefore providing scope for improvements in the use of office space in line with Worksmart principles. The workSPACE strategy was approved in September 2011, agreeing a reduction in the number of offices and council facilities by 25 per cent in the first two years, and a further 20 per cent thereafter.
Building staff awareness
1.14 A key material factor employed by the Worksmart project team to engage staff in the initiative has been the design of a dedicated website, so that all staff can access information on the programme. As only a third of the council's employees have access to a work PC, the website is hosted externally so all staff can access it from their home. The website provides information on each of the four different work profiles, gives case study examples (see case studies below) and regular bulletins about the progress of the programme roll-out and FAQs. It also hosts the application process.
1.15 The project team also makes itself available to hold one to one phone interviews with staff interested in applying for the programme and uses the website in these calls to help engage them with navigating through the site. Since its launch the site has had 65,000 hits and the platform has since been offered to other councils who are using the Worksmart brand (Stirling and West Lothian). See Figure 2.
1.16 The Worksmart project team also supports teams going through the transition. They conduct roadshows in the offices about to embark on the programme and if they are told by staff that a team is willing to enrol on the programme but are being prevented by their manager, the Worksmart project team will approach the individual manager and discuss their concerns. Teams that have already been through the transition are used as ambassadors to visit others who are interested but want to know more.
Team Manager (Care Management): Flexible Working Profile
'I felt it was important to cut down on wasted time commuting and to try to reduce my carbon footprint, while saving money (due to the rising cost of fuel) for the council in business mileage claims and my own in relation to commuting miles and wear and tear to my car.
Working in this way has improved my organisational and planning skills as I have to attend a large number of meetings across Aberdeenshire, while also being available to offer support and guidance to the team I manage. As a flexible worker I can reduce my carbon footprint significantly just by planning meetings and supervision in a more effective and efficient way. This also enables me to have a greater work / life balance as I don't have to spend two hours every day commuting to work.
I have also increased my network of contacts throughout various offices in Aberdeenshire as I can and do access office space and work effectively in most council locations. As a result of my positive experience of Worksmart I have supported the majority of my team through the Worksmart process and the feedback has been extremely positive, especially during the time of exceptionally bad weather last year. The team were able to provide a high quality service, while reducing the risks to themselves by not having to travel on icy roads.
Initially working from home was quite challenging, more in relation to the perception of others, and it requires a degree of self discipline, but in only a short space of time I felt and continue to feel that I am actually more efficient and can achieve as much if not more while working at home, in a quiet environment without interruption. I use the communication tools such as Lotus Notes, Instant Messenger and the mobile phone to stay in touch with my team, manager and colleagues and find these effective ways of keeping in touch. I have also used Meetme / WebEx (audio conferencing / web conferencing) with my colleagues and manager, which has proved to be a success and completely cut out the need for travel on a number of occasions and especially during bad weather.'
1.17 Worksmart and workSPACE generate opportunities to make both significant financial savings and energy savings. Management at the council believed that the most effective way of communicating the programme to staff was through focusing on the financial savings that could be achieved through a change in the way of working, due to the heightened awareness of staff of the budgetary constraints being imposed on local authorities. The focus on the financial message made the communication more relevant to them as teams and an organisation; however the carbon reduction impact has also been communicated. One management interviewee told us:
'We were not convinced that branding the programmes as a green issue would be very helpful in the current climate as budget cuts and the need to make financial savings are most important in people's minds, but low carbon activity and sustainability was a key driver of the programme'.
1.18 There are e-learning packages also available to staff which cover issues such as the use of technology, managing staff working remotely and staff adopting different working practices. To ensure that staff do not feel isolated when working from home, managers are encouraged to ensure that one to one meetings and team briefs are set up regularly. The available technology also assists with this, for example, the use of web-cams and Instant Messenger. Further training has also been offered to managers who would find it useful to be supported in adapting a more flexible working approach and a change in management style to be more of a 'manage by output' rather than through 'presenteeism'.
1.19 The WorkSmart website also has a section dedicated to workSPACE. This has been set up to inform staff about the timetable of the programme roll-out, providing an overview of the process and the strategy report.
1.20 The Worksmart Project Board believes it has been fairly easy to engage employees with the Programme:
'The rising price of fuel has made it easier to persuade employees to avoid work-related journeys and adopt more flexible working and by eliminating the commute, staff have more personal time.' - Manager
1.21 However, the social context in which behavioural change is required is a challenging one. When teams were first approached to participate in Worksmart, they were initially concerned as they enjoyed their team dynamic and their own desk space and persuading staff to move away from this is difficult. However, the project team report that they have not had anyone join the programme and then revert back to traditional working practice. The Project team initially heard 'tea-room chat' that some staff did not want to work from home, but these people were not aware of the options available and once told that instead of driving to an office half an hour away from their home, they could work from an office much nearer to home instead, they were more willing to sign up to the programme:
'Staff are willing to give time back as well if you take a three-hour commute out of a staff day, they will happily work longer for you when needed. It's a win-win situation as happier staff are more productive staff.' - Manager
1.22 Staff in our focus groups also generally seemed satisfied with the introduction of Worksmart as they were pleased that they could now work around their personal or domestic commitments. One team leader expressed concern that there had been a loss of cohesiveness in terms of knowledge exchange and mutual support; and one staff member had concerns about confidentiality of sensitive information when working alongside unknown council employees occupying hot desks. Overall staff reported that the benefits of the practice outweighed these concerns. One management interviewee also reported that:
'Staff, once started on the programme, change their behaviour and the type of technology they use to communicate with their team and they see the benefits of being able to start their working day from home.'
1.23 The project team reported that older colleagues were the 'hardest sell' as they were not familiar with the technology such as Instant Messenger which allows dispersed teams to communicate. The flexible working allows staff to deliver their 37-hour working week at any time during the working week and therefore staff can realise benefits through this such as convenience in meeting childcare or educational commitments. One necessity for engaging staff with the programme was the ability to disengage staff from what is a standard nine to five office environment. The council has also moved to delivering services later at night which improves effectiveness. For example, environmental health officers can now visit hot food premises later in the evening when they are open, or social work assessments can be conducted in the evening which is more convenient for families.
1.24 Some staff reported selling their second household car due to Worksmart and managers have also become more willing to try out new energy efficient working methods. One manager told us they have tried 'walking meetings'. Instead of booking a meeting room and turning on the lights, they simply walk around the site:
'It's productive and we're at the forefront of testing our own boundaries. Productivity is important with the budgetary challenges we have.'
1.25 With the introduction of Worksmart, the potential breakdown in team dynamics was a significant concern for staff and managers. Early lessons learnt from BT and the visits arranged through Nomad Scotland to other organisations that had implemented large scale flexible working, confirmed for the Senior Management Team that they did not want to see rows of featureless 'hot' desks, where staff did not know the person working next to them. Therefore the design for Aberdeenshire has been to retain team areas, so staff who come into the office will be located with their team. This is thought to help build employee satisfaction and foster a better working environment. One manager told us:
'if this collegiate atmosphere had been removed then people would not want to be a part of the change programme'
1.26 Another challenge the Worksmart project team faced was the contention from staff that while there may be a reduction in carbon emissions from reduced business and commuting mileage, this would be offset by heating individual houses when staff were working from home. This offset is an unavoidable reality of the flexible working initiative but in balance managers and staff believe the reduction in travel, combined with the office rationalisation that Worksmart allows, produces greater savings for both the employer and employee. The Worksmart programme was rolled out before the onset of winter 2010 and the additional costs of heating during cold weather could be a barrier to home working for some staff, however no interviewees reported this as a problem.
1.27 Individual factors impacting behaviour change included the beliefs held by some managers that individuals need to be present and visible in the office (the 'presenteeism' culture) in order to be performing. There were concerns from managers about how they would be able to manage productivity with dispersed teams, as they had the perception that 'I can't see my staff so I don't know what they are doing'. Further training for managers now focuses on encouraging managers to be specific about what they require of individuals and measuring this.
1.28 The material context within which staff work will become more significant as greater numbers of staff adopt Worksmart and there is a greater reliance on using electronic documents. Improvements in efficiency will be realised as more services adopt an electronic filing system. The project team is working with ICT and finance to further explore the corporate roll-out of an electronic filing system. There are still some concerns around loss of efficiencies through supporting technology not performing as well at home and the project team are addressing these issues through development of e-learning modules to support employees and managers.
Evidence of impact
1.29 The Worksmart Project Board has identified the overall key benefits of the project to be :
- increasing team efficiencies
- a reduction in annual running costs
- more efficient use of space in buildings
- a reduction in business mileage
- and a reduction in commuting mileage.
1.30 When Worksmart was first introduced it set a target of enrolling 420 staff in the first year onto the programme. This was subsequently revised to 620 as interest in the initiative grew and this target was exceeded in year one. Over 1,000 staff are now participating in the Worksmart initiative.
1.31 Worksmart allows commuting mileage to be monitored through a computerised spreadsheet which participants in Worksmart complete every day. It collects their working pattern on that day so that commuting mileage can be calculated. The business mileage is collected through mileage claim forms and the council’s lower emission pool cars are also checked for mileage. The latest data available, based on 722 employees’ travel claims submitted to Finance in the first and second quarters of the 2011/12 financial year, shows that there has been a reduction in business mileage claimed over the previous year of 16 per cent in the first quarter and 10 per cent in the second quarter, which equates to a reduction in spend on business mileage of £30,502 in Q1 and £16,130 in Q2. The council has also recorded a saving of 136,588 commuting miles (based on 202 employees completing data collection between April and September 2011), which corresponds to 33,995 CO2 g/km emissions saved through working from home or base locations closer to home. This is likely to be an underestimation of the true savings, since many participating employees did not submit information for monitoring.
1.32 When new staff join the council the Chief Executive runs a corporate induction programme and staff are asked six months afterwards to describe the top three things they like about working for the council and the three things that get in the way of them doing their job:
'The Worksmart programme is proving to be one of the top benefits described by staff.' - Manager
1.33 During September 2010, a survey of all employees participating in Worksmart was conducted. The majority of respondents reported no problems when working from home - the use of Instant Messenger, secure printing, administration support, keeping in touch with team members, and making and receiving telephone calls caused no problems when working from home although broadband connections, saving and retrieving files from networks and accessing web based systems did pose some problems. Some of these issues will be caused by the users' home equipment and network speed in their local area. Keeping in contact with team members - one of the concerns raised by individuals and managers in initial discussions - showed very few problems, with only just over 10 per cent of people experiencing issues (see Figure 3). The majority of respondents (67 per cent) also said their team dynamics had remained the same since participating in Worksmart. Some 19 per cent reported that team dynamics were felt to be worse. The project team expected this as the teams adapt to their new ways of working and hope that team dynamics can be improved through the use of instant messaging and other communication tools. At least three-quarters of managers felt they could manage their team effectively now that they had adopted a more flexible manner of working.
1.34 A feedback survey for managers with staff who have adopted Worksmart conducted in March 2011 sought evidence of impact of the Worksmart Programme on productivity and efficiency savings. Interestingly, 62 per cent of managers indicated that they felt productivity had increased as a result of adopting Worksmart and the remaining 38 per cent felt it remained the same, with no managers reporting that productivity had dropped. In fact, even during periods of adverse weather, when prior to Worksmart productivity may have fallen due to office inaccessibility, productivity remained the same as employees were able to work at offices closer to home or from home. Some 82 per cent of those surveyed also reported that their team was happier having changed their profile or pattern of working through adopting Worksmart.
1.35 At the time of writing, the cashable benefits already realised from the combination of the Worksmart and workSPACE programmes are estimated to be savings of around £50k, through disposing of seven office spaces and amalgamating where staff work in those instances.
Critical success factors
1.36 Critical success factors identified from analysis of the case study findings are as follows.
Planning and preparation
1.37 It is evident from the description of the project management of Worksmart that the council invested a considerable amount of time in research before launching the programme, which involved seeking external expertise and learning lessons from other organisations. This preparation appears to have paid off in relatively smooth implementation.
Information and consultation
1.38 One of the factors identified as necessary for the success of the Worksmart programme has been allowing staff time to understand the changes and adapt to their changing working style. This was supported by multiple sources of information including web-based resources, telephone and face to face discussion. Involving staff in the change is also considered to be important as:
'…employees will often feel that changes are imposed on them but providing them with an opportunity to discuss the initiatives with those driving it forward can help appease staff who have concerns' - Manager.
However, when introducing a programme of change that requires staff to change behaviour, employers cannot simply rely on sending out corporate messages in an effort to engage staff:
'Time needs to be given to meeting staff, sitting with teams and telling them what is being done and why and then asking what their concerns are.' - Manager
1.39 Any change programme must start with establishing commitment from senior management in order to secure the resources that the programme needs to be a success. Middle management is often the challenge in implementing change of this nature and strong communication needs to be directed towards this group as if they do not display the behaviours and competencies required to drive the activity, their employees are unlikely to engage with the activity. Providing additional training and support to help managers to support teams working flexibly appears to have been necessary.
Branding the change
1.40 Creating an identity for the programme of change; for example, Aberdeenshire Council created the dedicated Worksmart website which is considered by management to be one of the reasons for the success of the programme in order to embed it and engage employees. The programme also offers very clear personal benefits to employees which is likely to enhance sustained employee engagement.
1.41 In future, further savings are to be sought from the material environment through the workSPACE strategy. There are ongoing discussions with public sector partners (police and NHS) about co-locating to the Aberdeenshire Council Headquarters building, to create a central public sector hub which would deliver further low carbon savings across the public sector through occupation of fewer buildings and efficiencies in cross-working.
Key learning points
- The success of the programme was highly reliant on effective technical support and it was felt that this was an area that required greater time investment before the roll-out of the scheme. Programmes relying heavily on ICT require some time to bed in and organisations may encounter teething trouble where IT provision is not within their control (e.g. domestic broadband provision). Anticipating and where possible providing alternative solutions to meet these challenges can help the smooth implementation of home working initiatives. Investment in staff training to maximise ICT is also necessary and may require tailoring for different types of staff.
- Financial pressures on an organisation can provide a good opportunity to reflect on how work is organised and provide opportunities to combine cash savings with environmental sustainability.
- Once initial changes have been made, it is helpful to ask staff what worked and what didn't so that these lessons can be built into future programme delivery to provide 'ambassadors rather than terrorists'.
- Feedback from employee surveys at the council have revealed that staff want to hear about change from their line manager so project teams need to engage effectively with these managers so that they are delivering the message that is needed for the success of the programme. Managers need to take on the responsibility for communicating change but they require support from senior teams to deliver this. Managers may require additional training and support to do this and it may be helpful to gauge this in some detail before implementing change.
- Encouraging managers to lead by example is also valuable: 'If the manager demonstrates they are happy to work from home, this attitude will filter through the team.'
- Aberdeenshire Council found that learning from BT and other organisations through the Nomad Scotland network was a valuable process and they advocated that it is not always necessary to design a programme of change from scratch. Communication with organisations that have implemented similar changes, thinking about how existing policies can be tweaked and how to challenge barriers in organisational culture should be considered in order to bring about change. Staff also noted that a high level of preparation is necessary when rolling out a remote working programme.
Email: Jonathan Waite