Stepping into the office suite, occupying a single floor in a block on a Birkirkara side street, the atmosphere is more akin to the hottest new coffee shop than a traditional workplace.
Inspirational quotes and vibrant colours decorate the walls. Friendly conversations are being had over cups of coffee.
The space is informal and relaxed, with people sitting comfortably at their work stations, many from different government departments.
The pandemic has brought out both the advantages and drawbacks of working remotely. But having to shift an entire workforce to remote working is no longer a necessity. It is now an option that the public service is exploring to create a better balance between personal and work life.
It is doing this through the creation of remote working spaces for civil servants that are away from both home and office. These are hubs that provide all the technology needed to work efficiently and where working parents can baby-sit their children.
The Birkirkara suite is the first of 15 planned across the island. Designed as a space where workers can access services such as conferencing, high speed internet and printing, among others, it is unapologetically high-tech.
As ICT manager Jonathan Gerada explains, many of the services offered work through an NFC card.
With the card, employees can enter the building and sign in for attendance simultaneously. The NFC reader logs and stores the comings and goings of every individual and automatically adds them to the record.
Employees are free to request a copy of this log at any time they please.
Even the post is managed through NFC reader: the card will open the mail slots for one’s department. The system also notifies the employees of every department via e-mail when something is dropped through their mail slot.
The office, while compact, still offers a variety of workspaces according to the needs of anyone looking to make use of them.
There are four distinct areas: a lounge section with four pods for small meetings, a so-called ‘bistro’ area for informal meetings, three hot desks and two executive offices.
A boardroom, fully equipped for video conferencing, is also available for larger team meetings.
The workspace operates on a booking system which employees can access through an app to book their spaces or rooms for a certain time of the day.
“What’s special about the remote workspace is there is a jigsaw puzzle of technology that allows it to work,” Gerada says.
It’s almost better than an office
“We’re operating on a system of transparent technology, where even if you absolutely hate using technology, we promise you that you won’t.
“Our automatic filing system can be accessed from anywhere, we are almost 95 per cent paperless and all our telephony has gone cloud-based through Microsoft.”
But more than being one of the most technologically advanced work spaces on the island, the switch to remote working has had a tangible effect on people’s lives, particularly those who have been accessing it through a pilot project that has been under way since 2019.
With the rest of the working hubs expected to be open by the end of the year in several localities, some 6,000 public service employees will be able to apply for remote working.
“When they told us we were going to switch to remote working, there was concern that working from home would not be as comfortable,” Daphne Borg said, as her son, Nicholas, sat quietly by her side, engrossed in a tablet.
“However, the fact that we have these hubs that you can come to and find all facilities you need to work, it’s almost better than an office.”
As a working mother, she adds, the system has been a huge help in allowing her to care for her son while being able to keep her job.
“Right now, especially as there is no school, it’s a huge help. I know I’m always available for him and my colleagues are very understanding.
“It’s a relief to know that I can be there for him.”
Vanessa Camilleri, who works in IT, agreed with the sentiment.
“The hub is a great resource for remote working because when you need it, it has all the amenities of an office,” she said.
“Remote work has made all the difference, especially when you have dependants. It gives you flexibility to reach a better work-life balance. I feel very lucky to have the opportunity because not every job allows people to work like this.”
Permanent secretary Anthony Gatt said the civil service was “less interested in when employees clock in for work and more interested if they’re meeting all their commitments on time while delivering high quality work”.
“We want to move away from the idea that all government departments should be Valletta-based,” he said.
“We’re very satisfied that, in this regard, the private sector is looking at us as the model employer in both the environment we provide employees and the working conditions we offer.
“This concept is a good platform to see how the new structures of how we work in the public sector can be designed.”
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