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Organisational case studies

Pivot to COVID-19: The agency-wide transition to remote working

What was the situation?

Like many organisations, the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 had AIFS’ leadership and business continuity planning committee assessing the prospect of and planning for remote working arrangements. Foremost in our minds was the wellbeing of staff and continuity of our work.

This happened rapidly. The time from recognising the need to act to actual implementation was around 7–10 days. Social distancing was directed on 3 March. By 17 March staff were advised to remain at home. Since then, AIFS’ operations have continued from remote locations.

In the lead up to the transition, there were a number of things we needed to balance, in particular the balance between preparation and taking action, and not overreacting. The accelerated pace of events meant limited time to brief individual managers. Directives had to be clear and communicated well.

Since then, the specific issues we’ve faced have shifted over time. The initial focus was logistic – can we actually do this? Then, consideration turned to what has been impacted? Next, we focused on how staff were managing to conduct their work – did they have the equipment they needed; support they required from managers; clear and frequent communication? At all times staff wellbeing underpinned our approach. In this new environment, with new demands and expectations, how were our staff actually coping?

What did we do to respond?

The key actions taken included, in order:

  • ensuring and testing all staff contact details and remote access to our IT systems
  • cancelling non-essential travel
  • preparing staff to be able to work from home at short notice
  • requiring physical distancing in the office
  • mandating all staff other than critical operations work from home
  • introducing daily Executive meetings to monitor the situation
  • creating detailed guidance for working from home
  • introducing ongoing COVID-related communications, check ins, manager forums and other
  • mechanisms to ensure clear, consistent communication and information sharing.

AIFS Business Continuity Plan enabled us to act quickly and confidently. It is a comprehensive plan and we conduct regular scenario testing. While we hadn’t specifically tested for a global pandemic, we had run two scenarios in the previous 12 months of our office space not being available, so we knew what actions to take. All of our IT systems and communications arrangements had previously been tested, including the automated notification system. Our normal channels of communication remain functional but, had they not been available, we would have had the Plan to fall back on.

What’s been the result? What’s been achieved and what’s been the benefit?

The transition to working remotely has been relatively smooth and productivity levels remain high. We have managed the logistics around conducting our research and meeting contractual obligations; we even initiated and implemented our own research with the COVID-19 survey. Since the pandemic started to impact AIFS’ working environment, we have:

  • successfully transitioned our work environment to 100% working from home
  • increased the frequency of Executive meetings and expanded the size of the Executive team to
  • include the HR Manager and CFO
  • increased the frequency of communications with staff.

One activity we did do differently was to include key management in Executive decision making. This is a reflection of our value system and of the investment we have made in nurturing our organisational culture. Our change management practice is a shared responsibility and this experience is reflective of that.

What are the next steps? What will AIFS do to maintain or keep building on the achievements?

We have learned as a collective to embrace this new world. We know that going forward we can facilitate safe and productive work in a remote capacity. We can see how we might balance our work and personal lives differently and we recognise that working from home will be a normal everyday thing for AIFS. We are making the most of this experience and viewing it as a positive change management exercise.

We have shown we are able to transition and maintain productivity at home and meet our commitments.

Transforming culture at AIFS

  • An organisational culture that enables AIFS to achieve impact

What was the situation?

We had to transform our culture and the way we work in order to achieve our strategic objectives. The problems we were trying to solve included:

  • financial problems, which had led to sudden and unexpected staff cuts in mid-2015
  • declining value of research contracts and increasing competition for work
  • poor staff morale as demonstrated by our APS Employee Census results in 2015 and 2016
  • distrust and lack of confidence in management
  • poor management skills and practices
  • a lack of collaboration between teams meaning the strengths across the Institute weren’t being readily harnessed
  • a ‘gap’ between the researchers and the corporate staff often described as ‘us and them’
  • our premises were costing us too much money.

Negative elements of the culture were constraining creativity and innovation, as well as hampering efforts to improve organisational sustainability. A new strategic plan had been developed in 2016, but we needed a transformation in culture and capabilities to implement the new strategy.

The strengths of the organisation included its longstanding reputation for research excellence and earlier experiences of collegiality among staff when the Institute was smaller in size. It was agreed by senior managers that a new approach was required in order to build on these strengths to fulfil the potential of the Institute to achieve its organisational purpose.

What did we do to respond?

We engaged our own staff in co-design processes to create values and behaviours reflecting the culture we aspired to. We also used these principles to involve staff in the design of our new premises. We saw an opportunity for the premises to embody our values. We used a skilled external facilitator at key points in the process. The project was divided into three components:

1. Defining our values and behaviour

  • We conducted a staff survey and three initial co-design workshops with staff using creative activities to draw out input from staff.
  • A cross-functional team workshop was held to review major themes from the survey and co‑design and articulate a clear and concise set of core values.
  • A graphic artist recorded the conversations and insights from the workshops, culminating in the final artwork for our values.
  • An interactive launch event was held to ‘reveal’ the values and discuss putting the values into action.

2. Co-designing our new workplace

We asked staff about their current experiences of working in the existing AIFS premises. We also ran a couple of exercises to create a vision for our workplace. We asked staff to envision what their typical day could look like in the new office. Another exercise asked staff to unleash their imaginations and come up with a ‘wish list’ for the new office.

Staff worked in cross-functional groups to create prototypes of their vision using a variety of craft materials such as plasticine, cardboard, pipe‑cleaners, etc. The models were displayed in a ‘gallery’ for all staff to browse for the next couple of months.

These workshops helped identify common themes and perspectives, which were compiled into a report to formally brief our interior design agency and project team. Flexible work zones, collaboration, connection, wellbeing, breaking down internal silos and ‘bringing nature inside’ were major themes.

A whole-of-Institute meeting was held at which the facilitator shared from the co-design workshops: ‘this is what we heard you say’. The interior designer explained the fit-out plan: ‘this is what we created from your ideas’.

3. Change management and communication

We established ‘AIFS Explorer’, a fortnightly e-news bulletin, centralising all communication about the move, organisational culture and change initiatives. Prior to this, internal communication was sporadic and not centrally managed.

We developed a calendar of events leading up to the move: a series of clean-up days followed by pizza lunches; progress pictures of the fit‑out; site visits; and orientation walks to help familiarise staff with the new location.

We created an online collaboration space where we posted answers to staff questions and key documents so staff could keep up-to-date with developments. We also set up a ‘Relocation Working Group’ with representation across all teams to ensure the flow of information between staff and the project Steering Committee.

A celebration was held one month after moving in to acknowledge the cross-team collaboration and hard work of all staff in the relocation

What’s been the result? What’s been achieved and what’s been the benefit?

Operational improvements

  • The average research contract duration has increased 32.5% in the period 2016 to 2018.
  • The average size of contracts in dollar terms has increased by 42.2% over the same period.
  • Our move to new premises in February 2018 achieved an annual leasing cost reduction of 21.5%.
  • No Comcare claims (after a poor history of these) despite some challenging workplace issues needing to be addressed.

Improvement in APS Employee Census results 2018

  • In 2018, AIFS was ranked in the top 10 of 100 organisations in the APS for wellbeing, engagement and innovation; 6th for Wellbeing; 8th for Engagement; and 10th for Innovation.
  • In 2019, although the rankings dropped slightly, the overall scores against these measures were almost identical.
  • In other positive signs from our Census data, staff perceptions of our senior executive leaders are high – 73% say their SES effectively leads and manages change (up 23 points from 2017) and 66% say communication between SES and other employees is effective (up by 29 points).
  • Ninety per cent of staff now say internal communication is regular (up by 47 points).
  • Our change management has improved significantly – 71% of staff say they are consulted about change at work (up by 28 points) and 68% of staff say change is managed well (up by 39 points).

Finalist in the IPAA Public Sector Innovation awards

  • AIFS was a finalist in the Culture and Capability category of the IPAA Public Sector Innovation Awards in 2019.

What are the next steps? What will AIFS do to maintain or keep building on the achievements?

An ongoing challenge is that shaping the culture through our values and behaviour never ends. We need to consistently reflect on our behaviour and actions through the filter of our values and have the courage to challenge each other if we slip into old patterns of thinking and acting.

One of our values is ‘honest and respectful conversations’. Staff have said they appreciate that being able to have difficult conversations is essential – but that they sometimes lack the confidence and skills in this area. We are implementing development programs for staff and managers to build this capability. We are also refreshing our performance development and review system – so that there is a stronger connection between the individual, the manager, our organisational purpose and the values that underpin it.

One of our ongoing challenges is balancing our dependency on contract funding with promoting a culture where taking risks is permissible, and being clear about what level of risk is acceptable. Our appetite for risk and the processes for managing risk are maturing. This helps to facilitate a culture where people feel supported to take risks and empowered to innovate.