This guest blog summarises the findings from research undertaken by Professors Sabina Siebert and Kevin Orr as part of the Scottish Parliament Academic Fellowship Scheme.
As with all guest blogs, what follows are the views of the authors and not those of SPICe or indeed the Scottish Parliament.
Working at the parliament – pre and post pandemic
Our study focused on the people – staff and politicians alike – who work in the parliamentary estate, and how they experience the building as a workplace.
Even before the pandemic, some challenging issues were bearing down on the building. These include increasing footfall, the presence of multiple generations of users, the demands of zero-carbon targets, technological innovations, and governance changes at local, national, and European levels.
The pandemic produced far reaching changes to how and where the work of the Scottish Parliament happens. It also raised important questions about which of the adjustments that took place during the pandemic are here to stay, and which parts of previous ways of working are important to return to.
The parliamentary estate is a site of great national importance and architectural prestige. There is almost universal pride in the building among those working there. However, since it opened in 2004, a number of issues have developed in relation to the capacity, usability, and maintenance of the building.
The building is a multi-purpose space used by a number of different stakeholders. These include Members, parliament staff, media, contractors, visitors, and constituents. Prior to the pandemic, the number of passholders had been increasing year-on-year. However, the pandemic saw a decrease in the numbers and intensity of people on-site and it is likely that some of the patterns of usage established during that period will continue in the medium and longer term.
Changing working patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic have revealed both opportunities and challenges for rethinking how the building can be best used, as well as increasing the urgency of pre-existing questions about the management of the physical spaces.
It is likely that the shift to remote and agile working during the pandemic will have lasting impacts on people’s patterns of work, including their preferred locations. An increase in remote working has the potential to reduce the pressure on space. However, it is not clear whether this is qualified by other factors, such as the significance of the core business days which concentrates the use of the building into the middle part of the week.
Accessibility and flexibility of space
The building plays an important role in cultivating good working relationships. The accessibility of social spaces such as the Garden Lobby, the Restaurant, and the adjacent garden, are greatly valued and commonly identified as important resources that enhance the day to day experience of being in the building.
In light of the terrorist attack outside the Palace of Westminster in 2017, all parliaments have been under pressure to increase security. The Scottish Parliament building still feels inviting and accessible. Members of the public enjoy remarkable proximity to MSPs in the Chamber. We recognise that this is the subject of a debate between different stakeholders who have contrasting attitudes to risk management and we can see that there are evident tensions between principles of openness and accessibility, and security and safety.
At the same time, some design features present everyday challenges. The building is already under considerable space pressure. Some interviewees emphasised the shortage of meeting rooms or spaces that facilitate interaction. Providing more meeting spaces could also help cooperation between different offices and departments.
Given social distancing measures, the pressure on meeting rooms, and the importance of staff wellbeing, an interesting question is how best to use the different outdoor spaces that the site offers, particularly those within the security curtain of the building. Is there any scope for using some of these as accessible and functional spaces that support business and social meetings and the desire of staff and Members to spend time outdoors? Achieving this could support wellbeing strategies as well as addressing the need for a greater number of options regarding where Members and staff can work and meet.
A collegiate workplace
We were struck by the development of an egalitarian culture in the Parliament. This is both symbolised and enacted through the ways in which the common spaces are shared in fairly non-hierarchical terms by staff and Members. For example, the main restaurant is open to all and there is no fast track or preferential treatment for Members. People in the Parliament enjoy the freedom to approach each other, regardless of their position or rank. These practices are in contrast to the delineation of spaces and more pronounced sense of hierarchy at Westminster.
It is clear to us that people take pride in working in such an iconic building. This is very evident on the part of staff working for the Scottish Parliament, and a recognition of the way in which their collaborative efforts underpin the work of democracy. Openness to the public is also part of the organisational culture and a clear value is placed on the guided tours, accessibility, and education and outreach activities.
Many staff are active in creating networks to connect with each other on issues of common interest and mutual support as well as practical policy innovations. We saw examples of groups for mental health; LGBT+ equality and diversity; and sustainability. These activities and groups also speak to a culture of collaboration and constructive engagement with the enhancement of the Parliament as a workplace. In a period where remote working may increase, it is important that such networks are supported and maintained. Indeed, their insights into how best to develop practices in this new era of work will be invaluable to the Parliament as part of the co-creation of ways forward.
The increase in homeworking since March 2020 was an externally imposed rather than planned-for development. Because it coincided with school closures and the shuttering of childcare facilities, it also brought additional and intensive pressures for staff. The burden of caring responsibilities is gendered and therefore the impacts of the situation will have been felt differentially across the workforce.
For some who had been working remotely for a part of each week prior to the pandemic, the change also involved a sudden and unexpected shift to five days a week. For others, the experience of homeworking has been largely positive and, in common with wider patterns in other workplaces, there is increasing interest in maintaining elements of remote working post-lockdown. In that respect this trend gives momentum to the Scottish Parliament’s pre-existing workplace strategy, which had been the development of remote working policies.
There are also downsides of homeworking. Increases in productivity among homeworkers is often achieved through work intensification. Remote working can also diminish team-working practices and cultures, and it can be harder to manage flows of knowledge across the organisation. Many people have welcomed the removal of commuting from their lives, but for others it can act as a buffer or decompression zone at the beginning and end of work, the removal of which can negatively affect employees’ health.
There are important equality and diversity issues inherent in these issues. For example, visibility in the building (as opposed to participation via video-conferencing) can be linked to promotion prospects and career success.
The Parliament’s important commitments to being carbon-neutral, and to invest in low carbon technologies, have implications at both a strategic and operational level. It is clear that staff feel a responsibility to push forward these agendas, given the flagship status of the building.
The Scottish Parliament building is of enormous symbolic, cultural, and architectural significance in Scotland.
As the custodians of the building staff are deeply engaged in the maintenance and development of the institution and in its founding values. Though the balance between continuity and change, or tradition and innovation, is always delicate, we met people committed to translating important values in thoughtful and responsible ways to meet the evolving demands on the Parliament.
We would like to end by thanking the Scottish Parliament for the award of our Academic Fellowships. And to record our thanks to colleagues in Facilities Management and SPICe who supported and guided this project. Finally, thank you to everyone who made time to participate in this research. We hope to stay connected with you and to offer any support we can to the important work that is done in this very special building.
Kevin Orr is Professor of Management, University of St Andrews (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Sabina Siebert is Professor of Management, University of Glasgow (email@example.com)