First, ask the right questions
Public service leaders are having a very different experience to the one they were anticipating in January. Many areas are completely overwhelmed, with heavy workloads and rapid timeframes. High levels of fatigue are starting to emerge, and the resilience and mental health of public servants at all levels are being tested. Rapid policy and process changes are being made on a seemingly constant basis, and employees are at risk of losing motivation as the pandemic moves out of acute crisis and into a longer term dislocation.
First, address the immediate impact of the pandemic: How do we pivot from our original plan to things that are now more important? How do we get the right talent to where they need to be as quickly and seamlessly as possible? And how do we create quicker policies and processes without sacrificing quality or good governance?
Leaders then need to focus on amplifying collaboration: How do we transcend barriers between agencies and sectors to provide joined-up pandemic solutions? To achieve this, each leader and their colleagues must favour “the whole” over “my part”. This requires collective commitment to succeed, since a lack of reciprocity anywhere in the collaboration can break the chain. Leadership teams which are unanimously showing that they’ve put collective success ahead of the performance of their area are making great progress.
Managing multiple priorities must also be considered on a broader scale: How do we best balance our obligations to citizens with our responsibilities to our people? The only effective answer here is “both…and”. On the one hand, maintaining an external focus is very healthy – it connects employees with their purpose as public servants and the very act of altruistic behaviour generates intrinsic motivation. It also focuses our minds away from other distractions or sources of anxiety. However, if it feels like “employees come last”, then the lack of empathy is destructive. The call to arms must always be prefaced with genuine compassion for employees’ situations, and be backed with concrete, relevant support.
Focusing externally, leaders must also maintain high standards of service delivery: How do we deliver services for citizens effectively, under alien, difficult and frequently changing operating conditions? Two complementary elements are needed to deal with this challenge. One is an efficient approach to error minimisation, which can be helped by an agile approach. The other is an emphasis on learning over being right or casting blame. A lot of mistakes are made when moving fast and dealing with complex, ambiguous situations. Those that are doing best are using these mistakes as fuel to get much better next time. They are also humble and honest in dealing with mistakes, while presenting clear and credible plans for how performance will be improved.
The paradox of remote working is that it can actually achieve more team cohesion than face-to-face if approached in the right way.
Addressing the above questions will be superfluous, however, if leaders are unable to connect and motivate their teams remotely: How do we unify and engage a workforce that is at risk of social isolation and fragmentation? The paradox of remote working is that it can actually achieve more team cohesion than face-to-face if approached in the right way. This comes from things as simple as having the video function switched on and asking people about what’s happening in their day, to deliberate actions to build cohesion and collaboration. This can range from working on documents together online or building a team charter, to having virtual social events or running agile processes such as Retros.
Finally, look to the future: How do we plan for financial year 2021 when we don’t know when or at what speed the situation will normalise or even what the new normal might look like?
The keys to planning in uncertainty are flexibility and a “point-to-point” approach. This requires a leader to understand the relevant time horizons at play and then structure a plan around four elements: phases (e.g. crisis, holding pattern, recovery, new normal), time periods (e.g. weeks, months or quarters), options (we could move to phase X, Y or Z, which look like…), and criteria (the guidelines for choosing between X, Y, Z are…). These foundations work whether you’re running a frontline operation or a support division. You can then structure your communications on the same basis. When you get to communicating the plan and its inherent ambiguity, provide as much clarity as you can, foreshadow to help people navigate from one point to the next, give people a sense of agency by clarifying their role in this process, under-promise and over-deliver, and reduce worry by sectioning off time periods.
If you ask yourself and others the right questions and address them from a healthy stance, you can influence how this devastating time plays out for your people and for the country. And as a result, you will probably become the best public service leader you’ve ever been.