Are councils embracing an agile future … or is it cost-saving without the transformation?

By Heather Cameron

An increasingly diverse working population means that more people require and expect enhanced flexibility to help them balance their lives at work and at home, manage a range of different caring responsibilities and transition into retirement, for example, by reducing hours or through adaptations to how they work.” (CIPD, 2014)

The needs of the workforce is changing. No longer is nine to five office working the norm as more and more employees expect flexible working environments.

According to the CIPD, these changing needs, combined with the fast pace of economic change, require organisations to adopt more agile working practices. And this applies to both the public and private sectors.

What is agile working?

The concept of agile working refers to a way of working that incorporates time and place flexibility. It enables employees to work where, how and when they choose, subject to business needs, in order to improve work/life balance and maximise productivity. It is a move away from the reliance on the office location towards a culture that incorporates remote working and more dynamic office spaces.

The Agile Future Forum defines agile working practices along four dimensions:

  • Time: when do they work? (e.g. part-time working; staged retirement)
  • Location: where do they work? (e.g. people working across multiple sites)
  • Role: what do they do? (e.g. multi-skilling)
  • Source: who is employed? (e.g. using contractors or temps)

In addition to offering practical solutions to help improve the work-life balance of the workforce, agile working can also provide the opportunity to reduce and control operational costs. One of the biggest costs for any organisation, whether in the private or public sector, is the fixed costs associated with buildings and furniture.

As local government finances continue to be squeezed, councils face an ongoing dilemma of having to try and reduce costs while maintaining service delivery. So perhaps agile working is a way of achieving this.

Cost savings?

 As a recent briefing paper on agile working in the public sector has highlighted, it is no surprise that the public sector estate should be earmarked for cost savings and reform, given its vast scale. The local government estate consists of over 180,000 buildings, with a value of £250 billion and annual running costs of £25 billion.

Council offices are also often housed in old inefficient buildings that are often located in prime real estate sites that could be sold for redevelopment. “They have become valuable assets that are ill-suited to their current purpose.”

And many of these buildings are underutilised. According to the briefing paper, the majority of local government buildings have a desk occupancy rate of 45% and a meeting room occupancy rate of 60% – meaning that there can be as many as 297,000 empty desks on any given day and numerous underutilised meeting and conference rooms.

It is therefore no wonder we have seen a move by councils to introduce agile working in recent years.

Agile working in local government

Earlier this year, it was reported that Angus Council plans to invest £2.2 million in two buildings to promote agile working among its staff. This forms part of the council’s plans to close 32 offices in a bid to save almost £5 million a year from its budget.

Head of technical and property services at Angus said:

“The investment in works and furniture will provide modern office environments to support staff adopting new ways of working aligned with the agile culture, while reducing the council’s existing estate portfolio.”

In 2013 Monmouthshire Council opened a new £6 million headquarters with only 88 desks for 200 staff. The new office was created to help facilitate the council’s agile working policy and reduce costs.

Lambeth Council is moving from 14 operating sites to just 2, with a 10:6 desk ratio. The council’s flexible working strategy aims to help reduce its real estate costs by £4.5 million per year.

It has been argued that the main catalyst for change across councils has been the creation of the government’s One Public Estate initiative, launched in 2013.

Under the initiative, councils in England have freed up land for around 9,000 homes and created 20,000 jobs. It is expected that the councils involved will raise £129 million in capital receipts from land sales and cut running costs by £77 million over 5 years.

Final thoughts

The potential cost savings from agile working would seem undeniable. But does the adoption of agile working in local government represent true transformation?

Of course, it is more difficult to embed a shift in culture change within an organisation than it is to merely convince people that agile working is beneficial. Nevertheless, the success stories from Timewise Councils suggest that transformation is happening.


If you enjoyed reading this post, you might like our previous post on flexible working.

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