The startup mentality public sector firms may need to learn

A blog post from shows how remote and mobile workers can benefit from casual connections. Will governments follow suit?

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It’s hard to compare a large public-sector department or agency with a startup — it’s almost like comparing a slow-moving turtle with a nimble fox. But it doesn’t mean the public sector can’t act more like a fox every now and then.

Working remotely makes sense for a startup that doesn’t have the capital for an office building or that has staff spread out across the country.

For, a company that helps its customers send targeted emails to users, a two-month experiment with remote working had great results: They were able to attract highly skilled talent (who, perhaps, didn’t want to commute anymore or wanted more work/life balance), which led to a more distributed team.

“Our team of seven might be anywhere in the world. I’d never know and I have no idea whether or not they wear pants when they work,” says Colin Nederkoorn, co-founder and CEO of

But a distributed team doesn’t come without its challenges. As Nederkoorn discovered, having casual interactions in the office can be invaluable — the kind where you make business decisions over lunch or coffee in the kitchen.

“Casual discussions are the most valuable thing you can accidentally lose when becoming a remote team,” he says. So the company schedules open-ended video chats (with a loose agenda) and uses collaboration tools for sharing work. And they meet in person for a few days once a quarter.

So can the public sector — where the nine-to-five cubicle lifestyle is much more entrenched — change its ways to become more like a nimble fox?

In Canada, there isn’t much of a formal framework for flexible work arrangements in the public sector (usually remote work is an informal arrangement).

But the Treasury Board does provide policy guidance and acknowledges that changes are occurring in the public service workforce “with a shift towards more knowledge workers, as well as changes to traditional family structures, employees’ expectations of work, and the definition of career aspirations and job satisfaction.”

And allowing more flexible work arrangements could ease traffic congestion, long commute times and $6 billion a year in lost productivity, according to the Toronto Board of Trade.

This movement is already happening in other parts of the world. In the U.K., plans were announced to extend flexible working arrangements to employees with children by 2015. In Sweden, a framework for the national and municipal governments was designed to negotiate flex-time provisions.

Nowadays, there are several unified communication and collaboration tools on the market that allow you to “chat” with co-workers, find internal resources, share documents and showcase projects. And, as Nederkoorn points out, employees can tune in when they have time, instead of being interrupted and having to stop what they’re doing.

In the public sector, a telework policy may involve upgrading telecommunications infrastructure, as well as investing in the right collaboration tools. But it should also include a structure that allows for in-person meetings at regular intervals.

The reality is, not every government position will be suited for remote work. And let’s face it — the public sector isn’t as nimble as a startup. But with the tools available today, there’s no reason why public-sector departments and agencies can’t learn a few lessons from those startups and reap the same benefits of productivity and job satisfaction.


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