From the birth of the 9-to-5 to the rise of the computer, work has shapeshifted through the decades. Today, we are on the cusp of yet another evolution. Iceland has implemented a four day work week; Thailand trains the workforce with YouTube; and Japan has set up a new agency dedicated to helping the public sector catch up on tech.

Public agencies are drawing up fresh blueprints for a new age of work. The Open Government Products (OGP) unit in GovTech Singapore is rethinking communication, leadership and hiring.

The unit has modelled itself after big tech companies in the way it builds digital tools, and has succeeded in rolling out services at an immense pace. Rahul Daswani, Head of People and Culture, shares his lessons from pivoting in the pandemic, and what the future government office will look like.

Over-communicate and be transparent

First, communication will need to be more frequent and intentional in a dispersed work space, Daswani says. “You’re going to have to over-communicate because not everybody’s always paying attention to everything.”

This may mean bringing something up at a daily update, then again in a weekly meeting, and following up once more over email, he explains.

Offices will also need to set up more communication channels. OGP runs meetings on Discord, a popular video platform amongst online gamers. It allows staff to see what discussions are taking place in real time and hop between rooms to catch up.

The team does daily sync-ups at the end of the work day as well. Product teams take turns to update everyone else on their progress.

OGP organises weekly office-wide catch ups on top of these daily sync-ups. Every Friday, the leadership takes time to address questions from employees, which they can post anonymously on a shared platform throughout the week. These have opened up “harder discussions” on topics such as recognition and wellness, Daswani says.

The unit makes sure to keep these discussions transparent. “Traditionally, only management can see the responses” on Q&A platforms. For everyone else, it can feel like their responses are going into a “black hole”, he notes.

OGP gives all staff the same level of permissions, so they can see all of the questions posted and respond to them.

This transparency carries over to salaries. “Everybody in the organisation knows what the pay is, and everybody is paid the same base salary” as long as they are in the same role, he shares.

Redesign the office space

Next, public agencies will need to rethink the office’s purpose. Offices are no longer a place for solo work, but a space for brainstorming, Daswani says.

“The reality is, people are going to come back maybe 50 per cent of the time, which means our capacity effectively increases by 50 per cent,” he points out. This space should be given to collaborative work, he says.

OGP has redesigned its office in the pandemic. “We’ve thrown out the chairs and tables from our meeting rooms,” Daswani shares. Sofas have taken their places instead.

It has also set up standing tables for staff to gather for quick chats. This is important for setting the right tone for discussions, he shares.

As meetings become hybrid by default, how can supervisors ensure staff don’t miss out when they choose to work from home?

The key is to make it “as easy as possible” for people to join meetings, Daswani says. OGP has put computers in all meeting rooms. Anyone could dial in and be connected straightaway.

Virtual technologies could also play a huge role in enabling immersive, inclusive meetings. “I feel like we are underutilising VR and AR,” he shares.

Make room for autonomy

Third, leaders will have to balance empowering individuals to achieve their career goals, while aligning that with the organisation’s broader direction. “Leaders are going to be responsible for finding that overlap,” says Daswani.

In OGP, everyone gets to work on a major project and a minor project. The major project ties in with the organisation’s goals, but may not necessarily be in line with personal passions. Each employee can then pick a minor project that they would like to work on.

This echoes Google’s famous 80/20 model, which allows employees to spend 20 per cent of their time on creative side projects, but is “more fluid”, says Daswani. “A minor project doesn’t have fixed timelines for delivery, but it ends up happening because people work on it from time to time.”

Hire right

Hiring will also be crucial, particularly for tech positions. Public agencies should be clear about the kind of tasks they need each role to fulfill.

Daswani looks to tech companies as a “benchmark” for this. For instance, Google hires product managers with strong technical expertise; while Facebook looks for experience in business development.

OGP has chosen to recruit product managers with software backgrounds, so they can represent developers in meetings, he shares. The engineers can then focus on coding.

New skills for the public servant

What skills will the next generation of tech builders in the public sector need? Understanding what users need will be key, Daswani believes.

“You ask people what they want but that’s only the beginning. Because people can only articulate what they know,” he points out.

Product teams will need to go on the ground a lot more. This could look like observing citizens’ behaviours and body language, and digging deep to uncover what is “unsaid”.

This principle was clear while OGP was building a direct line of communication from government to residents. This became used for the alert system for nationwide Covid updates on Whatsapp.

The engine was originally designed for email, Daswani revealed. But the team quickly adapted it for Whatsapp when they realised that was the most popular platform Singaporeans use.

Moving forward, Daswani is looking to bring OGP’s model into the heart of government. He is partnering with other public agencies to help them speed innovation and work more effectively, he shares. His team has created guidelines documenting OGP’s approach, including in areas such as security, the cloud, and working in cross-functional teams.

Work in the next decade will likely be defined by the after effects of the pandemic. Over-communication, redesigning office spaces and giving staff more autonomy may be the keys to adapting well.