In a climate of austerity, Surrey Police is embarking on an ambitious programme to completely reimagine its workspaces.
The global financial crisis of 2008 reset the consensus on economic modelling throughout much of the Western world. Out went the prevailing Keynesian theory that government spending is the best medicine for a struggling economy, and in came austerity. When a coalition government assumed office in the UK 2 years later, it quickly set in motion a drastic programme of public sector cuts that are still taking shape today. As recently as July 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May declared that wiping out the budget deficit would be prioritised over any increases to public sector pay.
It is a mode of thinking that continues to put a huge amount of pressure on the UK’s public services. The emergency services, for example, must contend with dwindling budgets in an environment where it is critical that service levels do not drop. Since 2016, however, police forces in England and Wales have faced a 5% cut in government spending, which could amount to as much as £60m over the next few years in some counties. To counter this funding shortfall, there has been a substantial increase in estate rationalisation projects, while some of the more ambitious public sector organisations are using it as an opportunity to strategise even further. According to Kirsty Toye, a business improvement consultant for Surrey Police, while minimising estate costs is important , this provides an opportunity to completely reimagine the estate and the workplaces within it.
Toye, who is responsible for diagnosing business problems, developing solutions and supporting the change projects that follow, says that Surrey Police’s estate includes several old and unsuitable buildings that are not fit for purpose and not necessarily in the right locations. So the aim is to provide modern buildings in key locations that will better support the changing needs of the organisation and provide working environments that enable staff and officers to deliver excellent service to the public of Surrey. Yet Toye sees this as only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is possible. “We have lots of offices and a hierarchical structure, which means many of our senior officers and managers are assigned spaces that they are not occupying a lot of the time,” she explains. “So our space utilisation is poor and we know that we are not getting the best value from our estate.”
To solve this issue, the organisation will be adopting agile and activity-based working environments that feature a range of different workspaces and encourage employees to move around depending on their individual needs at any given moment. Toye says that through reducing the footprint as well as the running costs of the estate, the programme will generate ongoing savings that will help meet future budget challenges and enhance its ability to invest in staff.
Since 2010, public sector cuts have led to 19,000 fewer police officers nationally. The Police Federation of England and Wales has described the austerity measures imposed on the police as unacceptable, with staff now “stretched to dangerous degrees”. In Surrey, the established policing numbers have not dropped during this period but rather reductions in the workforce have been in police staff as the force has sought new ways to deliver the service. Toye says that Surrey Police changed its policing model last year to try and use its front line resources more effectively in response to demand. Other changes have seen the restructure of back office functions as well as collaboration with neighbouring forces to drive efficiencies and create economies of scale. “Our vision is to make Surrey the safest county it can be,” Toye explains. “We do that by pursuing offenders, protecting vulnerable people and preventing crime and disorder.” The implementation of agile working is about embedding a culture that empowers staff to be the very best they can be in support of this vision.
All critical public services must, however, maintain a delicate balance between keeping the public safe and keeping the taxpayer happy. Surrey’s Police and Crime Commissioner, David Munro, has said that “making every pound count” is one of the 6 key priorities in his Police and Crime Plan. “We have to make sure that we can demonstrate to the Surrey public that we are doing everything we can to reduce the cost of our estate and target resources at the front line,” says Toye. And, despite these fiscal challenges, the new workplace will aid the public service in its attempts to compete with the private sector in an extremely competitive job market. “Yes, it’s going to give us long-term savings that can be reinvested in the frontline, but we also see this as a way of attracting and retaining good people who want to work in a modern environment,” Toye explains. Increasingly, people are looking for remote connectivity and the flexibility this provides, and that is something Surrey Police simply cannot provide in its current workplaces. “Rather than have employees travel to the other side of the county to get to an office,” says Toye, “that time could be spent more effectively working from one of our other sites or at home if we provide the technology that enables connectivity.”
Of course, a move to agile working will not suit everyone in Surrey Police. Some departments require confidentiality, while others need to be based in a fixed location for the technical jobs that they do. Toye says, however, that it is imperative the entire organisation buys into the workplace transformation programme. This is particularly true of the managers, who will need to lead by example and not be tempted to micro manage their teams’ movements. “We must make sure they are managed by outputs and outcomes,” Toye explains. “It is about changing mindsets from work being something people do and not somewhere they go.”
In an environment of such harsh austerity, public services must ensure that any move to smarter working must amount to more than a token gesture of progressivism. Among the traditionally hierarchical and prescriptive culture of the police force, this means trusting and empowering staff to manage their own time. Proponents of the idea that workspaces can make a tangible difference to organisational performance and employee productivity often stress the need to align the management of the workplace with business strategy. At Surrey Police, the connection between keeping people safe and having an engaged and flexible workforce is crystal clear.