What can the public sector learn from start-up culture?.

Jordan Lawlan

By Jordan Lawlan

First published on PublicTechnology.net on the 10th of October, 2019 by Dr Anas Nader, NHS doctor and Founder/CEO of Patchwork.

A mini-golf course in the office. Fridges overflowing with free drinks. The incessant need to make every noun a verb.

There’s a fair amount that can be ridiculed in start-up land. However, it would be foolish to downplay the revolution occurring before our eyes. Last year a record 660,000 new companies were registered in the UK, with a 14% increase in the number of tech start-ups. And with WeWork and the co-work movement snapping up prime real estate across the UK, start-up culture is quite literally changing the map.

But it’s not just the physical landscape that’s feeling the start-up effect.

Employee benefits like unlimited holiday, working from home, and free mental health support are increasingly commonplace. Many in the start-up world realised that a company’s best resource is its people and have set out to protect this.

Promoting employees’ wellbeing is a business boon twice over: stopping talent loss to competitors and boosting individual productivity. This knowledge is now transforming every sphere in our economy.

Well, almost every sphere.

Whilst start-up influence is shifting how we do business across multiple areas, the public sector has been left behind. This comes at a time when the it is facing crisis.

Sky-high churn rates, low morale, and dwindling resources are putting staff under huge amounts of pressure. And whilst their counterparts in the private sector are taking advantage of flexible hours, work-from-home policies, and the latest software, our public servants are operating in workplaces stuck in the past.

That the public sector workforce is under strain isn’t a particularly new diagnosis.

Take NHS staff, for instance.

We’re used to seeing a regular stream of reports about doctors and nurses stretched to breaking point and numbers dropping from the payroll. This year charity the Health Foundation found that the number of personnel leaving due to poor work-life balance has almost trebled in the past seven years. While we can all agree that is a hugely worrying trend, not enough action is being taken to innovate within these workplaces and make them healthier places to be.

So, what would a start-up-inspired HR revolution of the public sector entail?

No-one is advocating for a surgeon to have access to free beers as soon as the clock hits 4pm, but one way the public sector can empower its workforce and reap the benefits is through greater attention to professional development.

Working in a start-up is fulfilling as you get to work at the coal face of a business and see your actions have a tangible effect. By contrast, the bureaucracy of the public sector can quickly lead to apathy and disillusionment.

Whilst standardised procedures are of course important in sensitive public work, this does not mean that we cannot streamline processes to free employees from superfluous paperwork or entangling procedures.

Helpful contributions
Helping individuals make contributions to their field – allowing teachers to trial new learning methods or supporting doctors to make tomorrow’s health tools – is another way to learn from start-up culture. Encouraging innovation empowers employees, whilst harnessing their first-hand experience to enact real, lasting change.

Finally, the public sector would do well to learn from start-up culture’s visible appreciation of its employees and team atmosphere.

It’s easy to stereotype this as branded T-shirts and prosecco on Wednesdays, but this culture of appreciation goes deeper. For all its flaws – which every industry have – start-ups cannot continue without a common mission, shared values and strong team relationships.

Employee appreciation and bonding are crucial in reinforcing these and this is a lesson the public sector must learn as it seeks to build a happier, healthier, more cohesive workforce. Individual departments and workplaces should consider implementing a system of employee rewards and benefits, from simple team lunches to physical recognition of great company work.

Public sector workers can often feel taken for granted and this can start to erode the passion for their institutions in which they work.

The modern workforce is evolving at a rapid pace. To ensure we turn this change into real progress, innovation must be allowed to thrive in every sector.

Start-up culture was born in the private sphere, but it would be a disservice to our brilliant public sector to contain its benefits and stymie the impact such lessons could have on the wider world of work.

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