New Ways of Working in Local Government

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2022 Local Government Service Group Conference
15 February 2022
Carried as Amended

Conference recognises that since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, UNISON members in local government have seen a dramatic change in how and where they work.

According to the Office for National Statistics, in the UK 36% of the employed population did some work at home in 2020. UNISON’s 2020 equalities survey found that 40% of members who continued working during the pandemic worked from home.

With the easing of Covid restrictions and transition into a post-pandemic society, workers expect change. Almost 9 in 10 workers told researchers for the October 2021 Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and Work Foundation report ‘Making hybrid inclusive – key priorities for policymakers’, that they don’t want to return to pre-Covid working patterns. Many employers are also planning to keep flexible, hybrid and remote working as a permanent option for staff, with some employers shutting a proportion of their offices for good.

Though the terms have become synonymous during the pandemic, flexible working means more than simply working at home. It can mean having predictable or fixed hours, working as a job-share, working flexitime, term-time only hours or compressed hours. Some UNISON members cannot access all these options because of the work that they do, and it should not be assumed that working from home or hybrid working is appropriate for everyone. But equally it should not be assumed that certain categories of workers cannot benefit from home or hybrid working, and such workers still deserve careful consideration in the design and provision of flexible working options.

These changes did not start because of Covid-19 but were greatly accelerated by it. Even before the pandemic, many local authorities were already moving to a culture of hot-desking and remote or home working – with offices being treated as drop-in ‘hubs’.

Some of this change has been positive – giving workers more choice over how they work, where they work and the days or hours they work. Technology has also given them more choice on how they communicate and interact with their colleagues and share or access information. This has allowed workers to better juggle their work/life balance and to tackle outdated workplace cultures like presenteeism. But there are negativities too. Some employers have pushed remote working and office closures to save money – without properly consulting staff or thinking through the implications of such big changes. For many UNISON members, working from home is not an option due to personal circumstances, and they should not be forced to use their own home as an office.

This has happened against the backdrop of an ever-shrinking local government workforce (especially in our schools). UNISON is clear that technology and new ways of working can never compensate for the loss of hundreds of thousands of local government workers since 2010. This has been compounded by higher demands on remaining staff and a growing recruitment and retention crisis driven by low pay in local government.

The large-scale shift to flexible working carries huge benefits to some workers but also some risks. Employers must acknowledge that a “one size does fits all” approach will not work. Changes must begin with proper engagement and consultation of staff and unions about flexible working – giving UNISON members a real choice in how, where and when they work

Conference calls upon the Local Government Service Group Executive to:

1)Conduct a survey to gather intelligence on what flexible working options are being offered by local government employers – and determine what ‘best practice’ looks like;

2)Campaign for hybrid working options that offer members flexibility and work-life balance, while protecting members’ rights at work and without any financial detriment, and retaining office-based workplaces for those who need them due to the requirements of their professions or personal circumstances;

3)Promote UNISON’s bargaining guidance on home and flexible working, and ensure that sectors, regions and branches include workloads, stress and mental health in flexible working negotiations;

4)Work with sectors, regions and branches to challenge employers who use flexible working as a smokescreen for cutting costs – or to justify any reduction in the workforce;

5)Consider how our approach to organising needs to change in the light of these new ways of working.