Working from home during the coronavirus crisis is far less common among public authorities than in the private sector

The proportion of civil servants who were able to work entirely from home during the coronavirus crisis is lower than the overall average for all Swiss employees. Just under a third of all public sector employees met the technical requirements to allow them to work from their home offices during this time. Enormous adjustments to hardware and software but also to working processes would have been necessary to speed up the changeover. Virtual work practices will not disappear even after the pandemic and, like virtual buying and selling, will only intensify. The authorities must now invest in digitisation, better exploit the potential of existing technology and immediately adapt processes and procedures. Human aspects and staff training must be the focus of this digital change if digitisation is to succeed.

As a result of the coronavirus crisis and the subsequent lockdown measures introduced by the Swiss government in March 2020, hundreds of thousands of Swiss have been working from home. In a representative survey, Deloitte Switzerland asked 1,500 people employed in the private sector about the impact of this sudden change in their working situation. In addition, 500 employees in state institutions and publicly owned companies were surveyed about working from home.

Low take-up of remote working options among civil servants

The general trend towards working from home, which began in the private sector with the introduction of flexible working models years before the outbreak of the pandemic, has not yet caught on in the civil service and public administration sectors.

We believe there is enormous potential to work from home in Switzerland. There is a need to catch up in terms of technological processes as well as procedures. However legislation also has to be adapted so that business can be conducted digitally.

Explains Rolf Brügger, Director of the Public Sector division at Deloitte in Switzerland.

For example, during the coronavirus crisis, 65% of the workforce in the information and communication technology sectors worked completely from home, 50% in finance and insurance and 31% in the mechanical engineering industry, whilst figures among public sector workers were only comparable at federal government level (33%). They were much lower at cantonal level (27%) in the municipalities (15%) and among those working in the health and social care sectors (16%). At 25%, the average of all public sector employees who work completely at home is below the overall average for all Swiss workers (30%). A ray of hope is that just under one third could at least work partly from home (Figure 1). An above-average number of these worked in federal and cantonal administrations.

Remote working by public sector workers during the coronavirus crisis

Deloitte’s survey of employees in the private sector confirms that there will be a greater need for remote working in the future: 34% of those surveyed said that even after the end of the coronavirus crisis, they do not want to simply return to their offices, but wish to continue working from home. While the trend towards working from home was often company-driven before the pandemic, for example to save on job costs, experience from the coronavirus crisis has led to additional demand for virtual work among employees. State authorities and public services must take this into account when introducing more flexible workplace models and preparing their employees.

The technical requirements for remote working are not met

Flexibly and efficiently working from the home requires the right resources and technologies, leaving substantial room for improvement by the state authorities and public services: Only 29% of the administrative employees surveyed said that their employers immediately offered the technical support needed to enable them to work from home during the pandemic. This immediate provision was much stronger for federal public sector workers and those in healthcare and social services than at cantonal and municipal level. However, a significant majority of the civil servants surveyed (71%) expressed frustration because the technical equipment to enable them to work from home took several days or even weeks to arrive or was never delivered at all (Figure 2). As technical difficulties in a virtual work setting have a direct influence on performance and the quality of work, there is a clear need for better technological solutions.

This is also underscored by the main reasons why it was impossible to work remotely during the coronavirus crisis: 58% of civil servants surveyed, who experienced a delay of several days or even weeks in receiving equipment, did not have the right software to access data. For example, there was a lack of secure access to internal administrative networks or the tools for virtual collaboration and telephone or video conferences were incompatible. Another 37% of those surveyed, who waited a long time, lacked proper hardware, such as laptops. Because most state authorities deal with confidential and sensitive data that cannot simply be taken home or digitised, data protection requires particular attention when switching to home office. Rolf Brügger emphasises that the “rapid introduction of simple tools and platforms for virtual collaboration and digital exchange must not come at the expense of data security. However, solutions already exist to make this possible”. During the coronavirus crisis, many data protection officers were critical of the premature use of collaborative software from different providers for administrative tasks, as foreign entities could gain access to confidential data held by Swiss authorities. Special agreements are necessary with software providers and alternative products need to be evaluated to ensure comprehensive data protection.

Digital challenge for state authorities and public services

The flexibility offered by home office could be used even more effectively by the state authorities and public services within the existing legal framework. A first step is to better understand the existing technical equipment and applications that enable remote working in the public sector and to use their full potential. The focus should be on internal processes and procedures. Understanding and using the current status are necessary to define and achieve future targets. This will allow the correct technology gaps to be identified and addressed. It will also help avoid duplications. “Only when administrative employees know the existing potential and use for their work can meaningful digital renovation be driven forward”, emphasises Rolf Brügger. The second step is to provide further training for staff. The introduction of new technical devices and company-wide standardised digital tools and platforms for virtual collaboration will only be successful if staff are properly trained to use them. In an age of accelerated digital change, digital training is the most important part in lifelong learning.

Focusing on human aspects and social needs in the context of the digital shift

However, new technology is not the only aspect that needs to be taught and considered for efficient remote working. In addition to technological solutions, the success of the home office depends on organisational and human aspects. The way in which work is organised, the processes themselves need to be adapted for virtual collaboration, and alternatives for team meetings and discussions must be considered. In order to facilitate virtual collaboration and to keep communication channels open, team rules need to be clearly defined and team access to data must be shared. The familiar spontaneous interaction with colleagues is only possible to a limited extent in a home office environment. Informal and personal meetings in the form of virtual coffee breaks or digital lunches, for example, can help to counter social isolation and promote human relationships. However, managers are also challenged to adapt their management style to flexible workplace models. “Management from a distance” requires formulating clear goals and the agreement of work packages for the individual employees. The division of tasks should not result in an employee being over or underutilised. Regular exchanges and feedback from management is also particularly important to ensure the best possible team performance and quality of work.

During the lockdown, various activities were either increasingly moved to a virtual platform or were created in virtual spaces including remote working, online shopping, virtual sports activities or accessing public services. This trend is not going to simply disappear after the pandemic and is more likely to intensify. That’s why Rolf Brügger believes the challenges facing state authorities are manifold: “Not only do they have to respond to their employees’ demand for more flexible working models and continually improve their internal digital processes, they must also prepare their services to meet the changing needs of society. Last but not least, the processes they implement need to be improved so that digitisation can be accelerated. In other words, we need to catch the current digital wave”.

Watch the interview with our industry expert Rolf Bruegger on working from home among public authorities

The journey to digital transformation in the Public Sector

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