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Work is what you do, not where you do it

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It’s been a little over a year since Public Health England was created from over 100 sender bodies, with over 5,000 staff based in 115 locations across the country and using over 800 inherited business systems. In this blog, Michael Brodie, Finance and Commercial Director, discusses plans for using technology to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the organisation and Dr Jenny Harries, Regional Director for the South, explains what this will mean in practice for her teams.

Michael Brodie: One of the key areas of my service portfolio is the responsibility for our infrastructure, our property and information communications and technology (ICT) services – the physical environment and the technology which impacts so significantly on people’s ability to perform effectively in their roles.

PHE inherited a physical estate with 115 locations across the country, often with several properties in the same city or town. We've developed plans to rationalise the number of properties to 80 over the next two years using the opportunities presented by the expiry of existing leases or lease breaks. This will save around £5m per annum for the taxpayer and, in addition, presents us with an opportunity to embed partnership working by co-locating with key partners such as NHS England and local authorities. It presents opportunities to relocate from environmentally inefficient buildings, thereby minimising our carbon footprint. It also provides us with opportunities to design our office layouts to ensure that the operational synergies envisaged in bringing together a single public health agency are maximised, with our health protection, health improvement and population health teams working more closely together.

It’s not just the physical estate that’s important in changing the way we work: our use of new technologies and mobile communications can have a significant impact too. To date much of our ICT effort has been on ensuring the safe transition of our customer-facing services, developing our high performance computing in support of genomics and the like and supporting our vital knowledge and information products such as the Longer Lives database. However, looking to the future our attention is focused on how we can use technology to make PHE a more effective organisation and one that is easier to do business with.

We've nearly completed a laptop rollout programme that will facilitate increased and improved mobile working, standardise our technology making it easier to support, and deliver substantial financial and carbon savings from significantly more efficient energy consumption. These new laptops have software installed which will allow our people to hold secure online video meetings, instant message colleagues for real-time discussion and share agendas, papers and presentations with everyone at the virtual meeting, thereby supporting collaboration and improved decision making.

As well as using software for person-to-person video calls and for small group collaboration, we’ve also upgraded our video conferencing facilities to maximise the use of technology and minimise the need for onsite attendance at meetings. The payback from this will not just be financial; it will facilitate better ways of working and benefit both our sustainability agenda and staff health and wellbeing. Work is what you do, not where you do it.

None of this is rocket science (as it happens, the leading edge science takes place elsewhere in the organisation) but it is a step in the right direction for a public health agency that cares about its efficiency, its effectiveness, its performance and its people.

Of course, technology in itself is only part of the solution, it needs alignment with how the ‘rules’ of the organisation work, its culture and leadership. That’s where Dr Jenny Harries picks up the story …


Jenny Harries: PHE’s south region is a huge geographical area spreading from the Isles of Scilly right over to Kent and Medway. But, in line with many colleagues in other regions, we can see opportunities to support the public health agenda even further afield and with wider impact whilst still sitting (or standing) comfortably in our office. From my first day in post it was very clear that getting effective, efficient and inclusive working arrangements across such a vast managerial area needed some new thinking.

Trying to stay in contact with our staff across the region, heading to London to contribute to national executive or senior leaders' discussions, being out with leaders of local authorities – these are all essential elements of the work of the regional management team, but very consuming in travel time and cost. As a result we have prioritised two areas of public health for which we really needed Michael’s magic input on the technology front and we have agreed some principles of how we should act on a day to day basis, not simply what we said we ought to do.

For the public’s health, firstly we wanted to reduce our carbon footprint and lead on sustainability. Secondly, we wanted health and wellbeing for our staff to be right at the top of our agenda to support their own health and as a role model for others. At the same time we did not want to waste time on unnecessary travel which reduced our efficiency and effectiveness and we felt we had an obligation not to expect our staff to do things we weren’t prepared to do ourselves, so we set ourselves a few rules and actions:

  1. If we need a meeting the default position is to do so by videoconference.
  2. When we are appraising staff we encourage and commend work which has been carried out remotely where appropriate.
  3. We all have laptops so we bring them to meetings routinely and minimise the use of paper.
  4. When we are signing off travel claims we challenge and review meeting requirements to reduce our carbon footprint and we are plotting our travel miles at regional meetings as part of our governance arrangements.
  5. We recognised that sometimes the gadgetry can be a bit off putting too – so we have made sure there is a business officer in every Centre who can ‘work the equipment’ and help others to do the same.
  6. Lastly I am starting to be a nuisance amongst my National Executive colleagues in challenging them to think about whether we need to be at a meeting in person in order to be present. You might want to think about this in your own meetings

Have you got a similar set of rules for your own organisation? I’d love to see them in the comments.

We have found we can spend more time doing the things we are passionate about and which make a difference to people’s live. We save time and energy by reducing travel so that we can ‘be present’ at meetings and contribute more effectively. Particularly for staff who live and work a long way from the main hubs of activity in Bristol and London, we are making their work life balance more manageable by allowing time in their days for healthier activities.

I know from the staff survey that it is incredibly important to staff that managers are visible – using technology means my team in Bristol see a little more of me these days, and colleagues in Centres (and hopefully soon in other organisations like local authorities and NHS England) can link face to face through virtual networks.

Just this week David Pencheon, the Director of the Sustainable Development Unit has written to me to remind me of the south region’s progress on, and contribution to, embedding sustainable development in all we do. Our national ambitions are laid out in the National Strategy for Sustainable Development in the Health and Care System.

And just to prove we really are testing the boundaries our latest success was our Centre Director for Wessex, Dr Jim O'Brien, chairing a senior management team meeting in Portsmouth from the Philippines where he is currently supporting the international response to recovery of the health and care system following the typhoon.

Have you got a better example? Feel free to post it below!


Featured image 'Conference Call' by Stephen Cummings. Used under Creative Commons.

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  1. Comment by Pete Marsh posted on

    I am impressed with this move to a reduced carbon footprint, it needs a balance, literally looking at someone's body language and seeing for yourself and commending staff personally is equally as important in my experience of managing teams across a geography. (It was a Informatics service so no shortage of know how). AV aids are very useful in making yourself have a presence, and deciding on whether you need to be at a meeting doesn't need technology. In fact deciding on whether a meeting is required is a positive action. I used to have a rule 3 emails on a subject meant a meet was required, maybe a rethink to a video conference is required. I wonder if Jim O'Brien work life balance is OK with the time zone differences in VC in from Philippines.

  2. Comment by Bren posted on

    Hello Michael and Jenny,

    Thanks for the great blog and it illustrates change, and managed change with a purpose and focus.

    It is quite a lengthy blog and so have offered a few thoughts below,

    Hello Michael, on the first part of the blog the scale of the change (in buildings alone) is really impressive. Equally, and in rightly so measurable focus, is on the impact on the staff. The software for the machines to safely and confidentially provide the required service is hugely advantageous, is there a measure in place to look at the savings and productivity benefit PHE, and also the services we give to agencies, organisations and above all people and communities?

    I was not sure if we could look at the sentence (paragraph 2, line 5) that has "genomics" in and consider lay language. Just a thought Michael.

    Also, is there something around, not just changing the way we work, but changing the way we think about working. I guess this blog goes some way to doing this but I do think it is as much about how we think-to-act that is important. Also, it must be about learning by actually doing too.

    As always, a great and well written blog by a very thoughtful and understanding person.

    Best wishes,


    Hello Jenny,

    Thanks for your blog and a view on the practicalities of this. Michael is a very special and magic person.

    I think the default is not do we have the meeting face to face, through technology, but, do we actually have to/need to meet.

    I think the example cited on visibility is good too and this does give, in my view reassurance and commitment too.

    I have yet to see virtual meetings in the communities with groups who are working with vulnerable groups always positive, but we are looking at a combination of conference calls and a limited number of face to face meetings to address the point (prefixed by do we actually need to meet?!!) on its not where you meet but how you work.

    Best wishes,