DfE Digital and Technology podcast

Think digital, act human: future ways of working

November 1, 2021


Here is the fourth episode of our 'Think digital, act human' podcast series.

In this episode our host, Adaobi Ifeachor, gets to know Jack Collier, Head of Digital for School Services in Manchester.

Jack Collier talks to Adaobi Ifeachor about designing office spaces now that we return to work, and how this impacts culture as well as diversity and inclusion.



Adaobi Ifeachor  

Hello. Welcome to Think Digital Act Human, a podcast from the Department for Education. Where we tell the everyday stories of digital specialists working on extraordinary projects. I’m Adaobi Ifeachor. Now in our previous episodes, if you’ve listened to any of our previous episodes, we've had guests from the content design world. We've had service designers, we’ve had an associate product manager, so all these kinds of digital experts talking about how they do their work. But this episode we have something very special for you. We're going to talk about where that work gets done and why that's important to even consider. So with our guest today, I have my, well I usually have a cup of coffee, but today I have a cup of soup. So it's a very special pod. We've got our guest Jack Collier. Welcome, Jack.


Jack Collier  Hello. Thank you for having me here.


Adaobi Ifeachor  Do you want to tell us what it is that you actually do? What's your official title?


Jack Collier Yeah, sure. So I look after service design and digital delivery for our services that we deliver to schools and school business professionals. So those are the people behind the scenes that make a school run perfectly. And obviously we want our services that we deliver to those people to run as easily and as quickly as possible.


Adaobi Ifeachor So when I first started, you were my deputy director. Is that still your official title? Or have you moved to something else?


Jack Collier I'm still a deputy director. That's me. DD, JC (laughs)


Adaobi Ifeachor That sounds great. Except I'm getting DD Jesus Christ.


Jack Collier Oh God. (Laughs) definitely not that.


Adaobi Ifeachor Never mind, let’s move on. Right so what was really nice, what I I kind of liked about you, Jack, was that when I first started, it feels like every episode I'm say when I first started less than a year ago, but seriously, when I first started less than a year ago you were one of the first people to contact me and you said that you know you were deputy director and you set up a meeting to meet with me and I'm thinking, wow. The deputy director of the Department for Education wants to have a meeting with me and then I find out that there are actually quite a few deputy directors.


Jack Collier There are tons of us.  


Adaobi Ifeachor What is it that you're all doing? How come there are so many deputy directors?


Jack Collier So it's a good question. There are a few of us. Basically, we look after different parts of our operations within the DfE that we deliver to users. So I'm looking after, as I said, the services that we deliver to school business professionals. I've got deputy directors that are looking after services that we deliver to teachers or services that we deliver to vulnerable families. So it's a huge set of things that we're delivering, which is why there's so many of us.


Adaobi Ifeachor OK, so something that you have been working on relatively recently is the future ways of working for digital and technology, which is like the part of the department that we work for, what does future ways of working mean exactly? What is its remit?


Jack Collier I mean, future ways of working is very much present ways of working now, to be honest with you. But really, what we mean by that phrase, future ways of working, is how the ways in which we're working are changing in this new context. So I think we in the workplace across every sector are kind of standing on a bit of a precipice, a doorway into a whole different future in terms of how offices function, how we use physical space, how we use virtual space. And there are two paths I think you can go down. You can design that consciously how you use that space or you can kind of stumble forward and work it out as you go, maybe unconsciously and not necessarily think about the decisions that you're making. The reason that we consciously set up a piece of work called future ways of working is because we wanted to think about the way in which we work in a design thinking kind of way. So, a user centered design approach, an agile approach, and really consciously step forward into that new world and think about how we approach this, this new context.


Adaobi Ifeachor  Now this was not a top down approach that you took. We’re both saying the word approach quite a lot we’re going to notice this now as we keep speaking. But you did decide to really involve the staff who are going to be working in that space. Can you talk about why you decided to do that, how you decided to do that and what you found out?


Jack Collier Yes, we are a user centered design organisation it runs right through our DNA. That I think means that it’s got to carry through everything that we do. And what better way to do that than to take the user centered design approach and apply that to how we want to work, because the way in which we design, the way we want to work is all about our staff and it's all about our people and their potential and unleashing that. So what better way to understand how to do that than actually go and talk to our staff, and understand what their pain points are, what their problems are, how they perceive the world, the things they're worried about. And so what we did was we went and spoke to people. We had a brilliant little team that really, really poured their heart and soul into trying to understand that perspective and that helped to shape what we want to do going forward. I should say as well that, you know, we're not we're not just designing around what staff want. Instead, we're trying to think about that within the context of our organisation and where we're trying to be. DfE is on a change journey. It's been a very, very policy focused organisation, and we in digital and technology within DfE are trying to push ourselves more towards a service oriented organisation and you can imagine space and environment is very different in those two different kinds of organisations. So yes, we went bottom-up. We went to try and understand what staff wanted and what they felt and what their pain points were. But we also had this view in our mind of where do we want to get to in the future and how can space and environment, virtual or physical ways of working, that wrap around that really help us together?


Adaobi Ifeachor So what were some of the things that you heard that were surprising? Like, what were some of the things that stood out for you whilst you did these surveys and these kind of like town halls and those sorts of things like what did you learn?


Jack Collier Yeah, I think two things that really stood out to me. One was that there is no consensus. There is no way to please everyone. Everyone wants something slightly different, which I felt was quite surprising, actually. And it really does show the power of  user centered design because I thought everyone would share my point of view of what, you know, what do we want in terms of ways of working? Actually, everyone has almost a completely unique set of things that they wanted out of the future.


Adaobi Ifeachor Well hang on a second, what is your point of view? What did you think?


Jack Collier I wanted a very radical change in the way in which we work. I wanted to think about the office as a base for community collaboration, play even, maybe even that we don't need a permanent office footprint. Maybe we could think about hiring the space that we need when we need it. I think that's future thinking stuff. Maybe that's too radical for where we are now. But, you know, everyone's got different contexts and so you might be, for example, fairly vulnerable, and so, you’re just not up for traveling. And so working from home and making sure that virtual first is embedded in everything we do is really, really important for some people. Other people we know within the team, for example, moved city in order to join the DfE. They don't know very many people here, and they really felt like work was going to be a social place where they could get to know new people and so, coming into the office was really important for them and working in a collaborative way in a physical environment was really important to them. So you can see there's just a huge spectrum of different views, and there was no consensus to kind of work through that and work out what we do in that situation? I think the other thing that I found surprising from the survey was actually one of the questions we asked was do you trust leadership within DfE to deliver on this? And I found it surprising that the majority of people said, Yes, we do. And I think that's quite unique within a large organisation that you have a fair degree of trust in leaders.


Adaobi Ifeachor  OK, so from what you said, I'm hearing kind of like two sides of this coin, right? We’ve got this world where people spent, you know, 18 months, almost two years working not from the office and then it’s a question of, are we going back into the office? Are we going back to the before times and using the office space regularly through the week? But then the other side of the coin is what exactly does that office look like and how does it work when we do go in? So like, I’ve been following what some other big tech companies are doing. I mean, like, it's October 2021 as we record this. And you know, we've heard Microsoft say, we’re basically not going to put a timeframe on when people are going to come back in. And then you've got like people in the tech side of banking saying, we want people in as soon as possible. They’re coming back into the office pretty much full time is where we want things to go. Whereas the Department for Education's official advice is we do want you in, two to three days a week. That's kind of right, isn't it?


Jack Collier Yes, certainly there is, I guess, an official line around how many days in the office we would like people to come in. But beyond that, you know, it is an empty vessel around how we design the office to be useful and productive for people when they do come in and how we create the environment, virtual and physical, for people to work, whether they're in the office, at home or anywhere else. I think it's really important to kind of pause on a little point, which is that over the course of the pandemic, the make-up of our team has changed quite significantly. In that beforehand we had a base in London and we had a base that was growing in Manchester. We had two very clear kinds of areas where we were growing our workforce. Over the course of the pandemic, that changed quite dramatically whereby actually we are recruiting across lots of different locations, including Sheffield and Coventry, for example. And most of our teams are now based across different locations, so it's very easy to get hung up on how many days people are in the office. And actually the design challenge for us is how do we design an environment that allows people to work from different offices together or different locations together because teams could be based in multiple different locations. And there were massive benefits for us to do that during the pandemic and continuing it now. Which is that by doing that, we can offer people better learning experiences because they can join different kinds of teams that match their learning needs. So, for example, I was able to send an apprentice to go spend time with the apprenticeship service, which is based in Coventry, and he was based in Manchester. He got loads from that experience because it's such a mature digital service. He got to work on loads of AI for example, and with mature software teams, we wouldn't have been able to do that in the physical environment in the before times. The other thing is that we were able to assemble the right skills to solve the problems that were in front of us. So rather than just kind of say, we've got this problem and this team needs to solve it, even though it might not have the right skills, we were able to say, actually, we need this person, this person, this person, because they've got the right skills, to solve this problem. And that was actually vitally important, I think during particularly our pandemic response when everyone was at home and we were able to assemble teams with exactly the right skills that we needed to solve a problem without having any physical divides between people. So I think it's easy to get hung up on this, this idea of how many days people are in the office when actually the design challenge for us isn't about that. The design challenge is how do we create the environment, whether you were in the office or not? Because actually our teams are across all different kinds of locations. The other thing I was going to say was that you started off this pod by asking me what's my job? And it's a really hard question to answer actually, I've got a job title, I just mean, I think I've got a set of things which probably doesn't mean much to people outside of the DfE. Really, my job, as I see it as a kind of senior manager within the Civil Service, is to unlock the potential of our teams and to support our teams. They're the people that are doing real work, right? People that are actually delivering for our users, whether I like it or not, I'm not sat writing code, which is going to be released to our users. That's the role of our teams. So my job is to unlock our potential and get rid of barriers to them flourishing as teams. And one of the big barriers that you see in any organisation, but you know particularly now with this kind of confusing environment that we’re in, is the physical and virtual environments which teams have to work in. And if we can remove that, which is why I was so interested in this piece of work, I think you can get teams performing even better by building the right, physical and right virtual environments for them to be able to collaborate and work effectively.


Adaobi Ifeachor OK, so let's dig into that a bit more. So we've got you trying to kind of like make lemonade from lemons and say, right, this is actually a chance for us to completely, from the ground up, reimagine what we want our work environments to be. If staff are already coming in two or three days a week or maybe one or zero days a week. What are they coming into? How are we going to use this space differently? And I happen to know, we have been given some money and some leeway to remake our work space in Manchester. I don't know if this is happening beyond Manchester. Maybe that's something you're aware of. What is the plan there? What is the vision? What are you trying to do? I know you just said you’re radical, you're thinking about collaboration spaces. So tell me, tell me the dirt.


Jack Collier Yeah. So I think the first thing to say is that I don't have the answers, and I don't think anyone has the answers for this kind of new world that we're stepping into. But that's fine because most of the things that we're working on, we don’t have the answers and we’re working on really complex problems, right, and that's why we've got this user centered design approach and design thinking approaches, and we're working in an agile way. That's exactly what we're doing with how we create environments both physical and virtual. So what is the vision, where are we going? Well, we've got a brilliant alliance. We've got a brilliant relationship with our estate colleagues, which I think is quite unusual in large organisations, actually. And I'm very, very kind of happy that we've managed to forge that. What we're doing is we're looking at space in Manchester and in Sheffield actually too and thinking about what experiments we can run in that space in order to understand how people work in those spaces. What attracts people to work in the office and how space supports that and what actually turns them off? What makes them say, you know, the office doesn't support the way in which I need to work. So again, it's about removing those barriers, but also creating the space that supports the kind of work that we want to do. So we want to launch a load of experiments with estates. And the thing that I always think about, and I don’t know if you've ever seen the film about the McDonald's founder?


Adaobi Ifeachor I haven’t but everybody talks about this 


Jack Collier right? I don't think it's a brilliant film, by the way, but there’s a great scene where they essentially prototype up the restaurant space and they do it in chalk, in a car park. And we're not I mean, we're not in that world, we're not exactly doing that. But what we are going to do is we're going to look at bringing in things like modular furniture so we can try different setups, we’re going to try different technology in the space so we can see how that works when working across sites in bringing physical and virtual environments together. And we're going to be seeking feedback throughout this to understand how that works for staff and to measure it as well. Does it bring people into the office? Does it drive people away? And really just take that experimental approach to how we design that space. And that's what I mean about consciously stepping into this question of how do we work in this new world.


Adaobi Ifeachor So would a Manchester colleague walk into the office and suddenly see that there are no desks. There's bean bags and like virtual reality goggles. I mean, I'm being a bit facetious, but like, how regularly are you going to be doing these experiments and then analyzing the results? What are your measures for success?


Jack Collier So I think you've got to go back to that thing I said before, which is space right? And virtual environments, physical environments, the whole thing, how we work, culture is very, very emotive and people naturally jump to, Hey, I really want this. I want virtual reality goggles, for example, and everyone's got ideas. And that's fine. But you're completely right Adaobi, you’ve got your product manager hat on to say this is about what we're trying to achieve. It's not about the things themselves. And if we go back to that statement we made before around, we in the DfE are trying to become more of a service organisation, then the space has really got to support that. So how do we measure our team's ability to collaborate in order to deliver to users? 

A really good example of the kind of things I'm talking about is if you were to go to Citizens Advice head office in London, you wait in the waiting room, you sit there and you look at a screen and on that screen you can see all of the digital interactions that are going on with Citizens Advice there and then. So you can see what are the top search things on Citizens Advice website? What are the top queries, for example. And immediately you enter this headspace where you understand what Citizens Advice does and what it really cares about, right? Because you can see it cares about the users and what advice they're trying to find. So that's the kind of outcome that we're trying to achieve in the DfE, right? We want to see that stuff on walls. So we want to see  TV screens sharing data about our services. Are they up? Are they down? Is there a problem? How many transactions have we served? What are users saying? We want to physically see that right. We want spaces that support the ways of working that enable us to understand the users better. So things like empathy labs, GDS have got a brilliant empathy lab in their London office because, you know, it's open, you wander past it and you are naturally drawn to it and you kind of step in there and you go.


Adaobi Ifeachor and what is an empathy lab? For people that don’t know.


Jack Collier it's a space basically where you can build empathy with different kinds of users who might be different to you. So they might have visual impairments, for example, and you can try on goggles that might stimulate that kind of experience that they might have. Just having that in the space that you can wander into and experiment and explore with, I think sends a great message about the culture and environment that this organisation has and therefore the kind of services that we're trying to deliver. So when we're talking about this stuff, that's the kind of North Star that we're trying to achieve, how can we curate space? And I keep saying virtual physical because it's not just about the office, but how do you work between different spaces that supports that culture, that way of working, which really puts the user right at the centre. And the thing that I’ll add to it is that it's not just about how we use the space, it is about how other people can use the space as well. So that could be other teams that aren’t digital teams coming into that space and understanding immediately what this team is doing and what it's achieving. Is it achieving success or not? You know, that would be a fantastic outcome. At the moment, we can't do that. We can't do that sat on our laptops, right? We can't do that at home. It's very, very difficult. The other thing is actual users. I would love to have users coming into our space and for us to feel connected to the people that we're serving and users for us in DfE is really, really expansive. But it's things like, you know, how can we support people to come into the office to get work experience? How can we support the mums that might have taken time out of work, who have children, for example, to gain new skills and go into different kinds of employment. So, for example learning to code something, we've got coders on site while we're running coding camps for people that want to retrain. So there's masses of stuff that we could do, which actually brings our users to us as well. And I think kind of creates a more permeable barrier between government and the people we’re serving. And again, when I think about ways of working in space and environment. You can start to achieve some of those things and I think that really drives the culture and ways of working then that teams inhabit.


Adaobi Ifeachor so many interesting things that you said there. I'm still struggling to understand how we might measure the success of that objectively. Have you thought about that?


Jack Collier Yeah. So it's things like, do people enjoy coming into the office? Do people actually come into the office to collaborate and do the things that we expect them to do physically together, right? Do they spend time together? But I think there are other measures as well that probably aren't as direct, which are kind of these indirect measures. Things like do we retain people better than we did before because people enjoy working together? People enjoy being part of an environment. So those kinds of measures that I think we can start to build out from these experiments, I should say we haven't started these experiments yet. So they're due to kick off around November time or towards the end of the year with the actual physical space.


Adaobi Ifeachor The reason why I guess I'm asking about these kinds of key performance indicators is because I'm imagining listeners who perhaps they work outside government and think, “Wow, OK experiments in how we use work space, that sounds great. How am I going to kind of measure whether this is working for us?” And there's some really good stuff you talked about in terms of retention. Because it's so expensive to kind of recruit and train new staff members and you know how many people are choosing to come into office now that you've made these changes. What is the perception of the staff themselves about how much they're enjoying the space? I think you do have to be careful about sort of like surveying people out. If they're like several weekly surveys, everyone's gonna be like, Oh, I don't want to go in just because I have to do another survey.


Jack Collier I think just to build on that measurement point Adaobi, obviously it's a massive experiment in and of itself. That massive experiment is made up of individual kinds of experiments, right? So one experiment might be that we want to create a dedicated user research space that we want to soundproof a room and make it private and be able to bring users in or be able to do virtual research from that room. So we then want to build those measures out from that specific experiment. And that would be use of the space, whether more people participate in research as a result. So they get to understand users' perspectives better as a team. You kind of want to break this big experiment ways of working down into smaller bits and kind of be specific about what you are trying to achieve with each one of those specific things? The other thing I'd just add as well around this is that I think it's a massive opportunity to improve an organisation's inclusivity and diversity by thinking about space and environment in this way. So one of the really exciting things that our estates colleagues are thinking about is designing inclusive spaces. So, for example, spaces that work for neurodivergent people or people with neurodivergent needs. For example, lower lighting, quiet spaces where it's harder to be disrupted. And I think that's brilliant and fantastic. That we’re starting to bring that inclusive design thinking into the way in which we design the space. And again, whether that be virtual or physical, you know, the virtual environment, it might be around making sure that everyone understands how to run a brilliant virtual meeting or if you're running a hybrid meeting, making sure that everyone in a hybrid meeting that is physically in a space together still has their laptop on and is logged into the meeting so that anyone who isn’t in that physical space can still see them. And if you want to, you know, participate in that meeting, you still put your hand up on the Team's meeting, for example, right? So there's all kinds of bits and pieces that make this up, but putting inclusivity right at the heart of this is really important too I think.


Adaobi Ifeachor Brilliant, in one of our previous pods we had head of design, content design; Jen staves. And she talked about the importance of communities of practice, building up this sort of shared culture within particular disciplines. So you know there might be a community for product managers, community for designers, and that's sort of like this intra-culture. But then there's also like this department culture, like there's like a digital technology culture that's been built up. And I felt that as somebody who is very new to work and DfE Digital and Technology is surprisingly quite innovative and people are kind of willing to just take an idea and run with it, which I really like, you talk about experiments and things like that. I'm just wondering how easy or difficult it will be to maintain that culture. Will it have to necessarily change? And before you get started on your answer, I can see the gears moving in your head already. Before you get started on your answer, I want to say this, a few weeks back, I went to perhaps my second social DfE, and it was like a Northern sports day. And we traveled out to like this particular site, Bamford or something like that. And there were just all sorts of events: football, ultimate frisbee, rounders. I was looking forward to rounders so much I can't even tell you, and then I was immediately bowled out. It was terrible. But anyway, how do you keep a culture and sense of rapport and camaraderie when people are really only going into an office two days a week if they feel like it?


Jack Collier Yeah, culture is an interesting one. And you mentioned different teams, with different cultures and different communities. And with different cultures, you’ve got cultures layered on top of cultures, right? So, we've got a D&T culture, we've got communities of practice, which I feel is the beating heart of DfE digital and technology, you’ve got team culture, you've got program cultures. It's a complex world and a complex environment. How do you keep a culture? I think for me, it goes back to what I said at the start, it's about being conscious about it. First of all, cultures never stood still. It's always changing and always evolving. And I think every action that we take, everything we say adds to, builds or changes that culture. I think that's particularly true at a senior level as well. Where I guess you've got more influence, more reach across an organisation. But within that context, I know that, thinking about how you maintain or build the culture that you want, you've got to consciously design it and things like rituals are really, really important in culture. If you think about any culture in a more kind of broad sense, a national culture or what have you. Rituals are often the keystone pillars on which that culture kind of rests or kind of goes back to. And I think that's one of the key things that we’ve got to design. We've already got some great rituals, things like Show the Thing where we invite teams to come and show something, ideally something that's not finished. It might be a problem that they don't know how to solve it or a fun project that they want to share with people because they learn something from it. That encourages a culture of sharing and not having to polish things up in order to share them and actually getting that feedback early. It's a great ritual to kind of encourage that kind of behavior. So these kinds of rituals that we've got to think about designing and then putting in place that supports the culture that we want to achieve.


Adaobi Ifeachor Do those rituals always have to be work related? Do activities like Northern sports day become more important then because you don't necessarily spend as much time in each other's physical presence?


Jack Collier No, they do not have to be work related. I mean, people enjoy coming to work. Definitely because the work is exciting it's interesting and you make a difference. But for the people, right, people say you come for the work you stay for the people. And so those rituals could be things like regular lunch time socials, for example. So I think where I used to work, we used to have falafel Friday where we used to go out to get falafel from the market. It's great. It's like a nice little thing to do. But equally, before the pandemic or physically in office together, we used to have a Thursday wellbeing time, which was about two hours set aside to just get together as a team, do some fun things together. I would personally encourage play at work because a load of research shows that that supports us to work better and supports us to bond as teams better. And so actually, I think there’s loads of brilliant rituals that we already are doing and which will continue to build and support that. 


Adaobi Ifeachor Perfect that was such a good note to end on. I'm just going to say thank you to everyone who's listened to this. Really hope that you've enjoyed it as much as I have. Thanks to our wonderful deputy director, our DD JC, Jack Collier.


Jack Collier Thanks for having me.


Adaobi Ifeachor If people want to connect with you on social, do you have a Twitter or is LinkedIn best?


Jack Collier Yeah, maybe Twitter is the best place. Unfortunately, it’s not at DD JC. It’s at Jack Colls. So yeah, hit me up on Twitter.


Adaobi Ifeachor So if you, dear listener, have something you'd like us to cover in a future pod, please do let us know. Our Twitter is DfE_digitaltech and our blog is the digital and technology blog. Honestly, just Google it, because if we gave you the URL, we'd be here all day. It is really quite long. This pod was brought to you by the Department for Education, the producers are Rosie Roff, Louise Mullan and Nettie Williams, and I'm your host Adaobi Ifeachor. Join us next time. Bye, bye.


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