Ihab Foudeh, Government and Education Lead, Microsoft, Middle East and Africa

Today, the way we work, play, communicate, commute, shop, exercise and learn looks and functions quite differently to how it looked and functioned before COVID-19. And we’ll be feeling the aftershocks of this global disruption for years to come.

Almost overnight, the pandemic has transformed the work and workplaces of the public sector in the Middle East and Africa (MEA), demanding that public sector employees work in new ways. Microsoft recently hosted its Microsoft 365 Summit: The Future of Hybrid Work, unpacking ways in which COVID-19 has affected sectors like government. Speakers at the event agree that leaders across the public and private sector need to acknowledge the drastic changes that have taken place in the last 18-months and then develop new strategies in order to thrive in the new normal. This means embracing an agile approach to work, deploying innovative tools and technologies, using insights from recent studies to inform future strategies and unlocking news ways of working.

For the public sector, this ‘new normal’ demands greater workforce planning. It also creates a real need to test the resilience of working virtually for an extended period of time; which has the potential to fundamentally reshape the government workforce.

The public sector transformed

Pre-COVID-19 most governmental agency work and social service was conducted in person. But when lockdown restrictions forced everyone to stay indoors, the need for remote governance came to the forefront, demanding that the public sector come up with strategies to perform necessary civil functions, remotely. This scenario presents an incredible opportunity to transform how the public sector works, for the better.

For example, one of the biggest costs for the public sector is real estate. But with the move to remote working, and the rise of hybrid work, governments will likely need less office space or offices that cater to employees that move between working from home and working in the office. This opens up potential for government to change up how their office spaces function and gives these institutions and agencies the opportunity to spend their budgets on other things.

According to research from the IDC, businesses across the MEA region have upped their investments in key tech over the past 12-18 months to enable flexible work. And the public sector is no exception. The IDC explains that although most government employees across the MEA region are slowly returning to work, public sector entities are still investing in technologies that enhance their employees’ ability to work remotely.

Large portions of the government workforce across MEA shifted to working-from-home last year, which was an unprecedented scenario for government leaders. In order to maintain organisational continuity, governments needed to provide civil servants with the devices, connectivity, applications and training to work remotely. This demanded a rethink of what the status quo looks like in order to balance productivity, and employee wellbeing.

In some countries, this meant making the massive move from an analogue government to an intelligent government, which is not an easy journey. But it is a journey that the public sector must take. Digital transformation across the public sector entails using data to inform policy and operations, making citizen services available online, being able to adapt to changing citizen and employee requirements and, at the most advanced level, personalising services and giving citizens control of their own data. Obviously, all of this comes together to make the work experience better for government workers.

As more and more government officials and public sector workers return to the office, it’s important to capitalise on the learnings of the last 18-months. Whether employees are working from home or in the office, the public sector employee experience must evolve going forward.

Rethinking the employee experience

The 2021 Work Trend Index outlines findings from a study of more than 30,000 people in 31 countries and an analysis of trillions of productivity and labour signals across Microsoft 365 and LinkedIn.

The results show that all businesses must focus their attention on the employee experience in the next few years. And, where employees are working remotely, the public sector must make sure that they are doing so securely, with the collaboration tools they need to be productive and with the necessary task and process automation to augment and support their work.

Hybrid environments combine the flexibility and increased productivity of remote work with the in-person collaboration and connection of in-person work. This, in turn, enables the public sector to offer better quality services to citizens. As the IDC points out, to successfully support hybrid work, the public sector needs to get comfortable with embracing a workforce that is “hybrid by design, not by circumstance”. As such, the digital employee experience has to be the employee experience standard.

eThekwini, a coastal city in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, is one example of a city that seems to be getting this right. eThekwini’s workplace modernisation enabled the municipality to fully function and deliver services without disruption during the COVID-19 health crisis. Leveraging Microsoft Azure, Microsoft 365 and Teams, the city was able to make the switch to remote work without having a negative impact on its employees and they are still leveraging smart capabilities and IT systems to easily adjust to the new normal.

At the start of the pandemic, governments were faced with a challenge to protect public servants, while still delivering core government services. Public administrations that had already invested in digital capabilities were far better positioned to manage the crisis without having a negative impact on their workforce or their citizens. Today, governments must take what they’ve learned during the pandemic and use it to enable greater productivity in transformed working environments and support public sector workers as they adapt to working in new ways.