- Adaptation Information Management and Technology
During the pandemic, policing remained an essential public service providing support to communities and protecting the vulnerable. COVID-19 drastically disrupted both the internal working conditions and the external-facing role of the police.
Police managers had to respond quickly to ensure continuity of operational services to the public, while also providing leadership within the force. The use of digital technologies (online, collaborative, and social media) played a key role in enabling police staff to work in a more hybrid environment. Our research explores the experiences of police senior managers and team leaders, how they adapted to new technologies, and the impact of this on the workplace.
Policing is traditional by nature and operates within a predominantly hierarchical culture. For leaders, face-to-face interaction and being “visible” is key for managing staff. Although some forms of hybrid working were not new to policing organisations, the pandemic led to this being implemented more widely across forces, particularly for those staff that were either considered vulnerable or those that could perform their roles remotely.
This presented a challenge, as managers were having to adapt their leadership style to the digital and hybrid environment. Some reported that managing in a digital environment was much more difficult and often required a different skillset than in a purely face-to-face environment.
Hybrid working was enabled through the rollout of new technologies such as agile kits and laptops to staff. The integration of Office 365 was essential in creating and maintaining connections inside the organisation, as well as with other forces, external partners, and audiences.
One of the positive outcomes of managing digitally was that staff and managers found it easier to engage in regular formal communication and provide updates to a wider audience. However, the informal “conversations in the corridor” were much harder to replicate online.
Below we highlight some of the key challenges that police managers identified and follow with the lessons that can be taken forward.
Reverting back to established practices
Given the traditional culture of policing, and the knowledge of being accountable to the public, organisations are often quite risk-averse and resistant to change. However, the pandemic created opportunities to experiment and innovate and many wanted this explorative mindset to persist. Therefore, a challenge that needs to be managed is to resist implementing old routines by default. Instead, it is important to be mindful of what new processes and practices did work well, and how to retain these going forward.
Siloed organisation and flexibility disparity between teams and functions
Another challenge that was identified was the potential for police teams to become siloed. As more people are working remotely, there is potential for a divide between police officers working on the front line and police staff who are predominantly office-based. This is due to some staff being able to continue agile working, while others need to be physically visible. This requires the police to consider how to hold the organisation together and bind their work practices within a fragmented work environment.
Traditional leadership and culture
A further challenge that was identified was that there were some signs of a lack of trust in employees when working from home and a need to visibly see what was going on in the organisation. Visibility is a challenge in policing, but one that needs to change if the police are to fully embrace a digital and agile workplace that supports employees to manage their own work.
If police organisations are to continue to embrace this new way of working, there are some key learnings they need to consider.
Managers need to be skilled in face-to-face and digital leadership
Managers highlighted that leading online was different to face-to-face and the pandemic meant that digital leadership was very much trial-and-error. Moving forward, developing digital leadership skills are necessary to complement in-person work practices that are well-established within the police.
Setting boundaries and clear expectations
Whilst police staff adopted and used technology effectively, the organisation has a responsibility in communicating boundaries, expectations, and online etiquette. Many participants were struggling to know what was expected when working from home, so they overcompensated, did extra work and engaged in impression management. Providing clear guidance and support around hybrid working is critical to make it sustainable over time.
Digital transformation requires a sustained cultural shift
For policing to fully embrace digital ways of working, a shift in mindset and culture are required in terms of how policing can be practised. The pandemic challenged established assumptions around police work practices and demonstrated that organisational-wide change was possible. Therefore, the police need to further evaluate its existing assumptions, values and norms that might limit them to change and transform. And with that, identify how to best support its workforce in gaining new, digital skills to drive digital transformation.
We will be sharing more of our findings in a report released later in the year.
This project – Policing Beyond the Pandemic: The Transformation of Police Work Practices in Response to the Crisis – was funded by the Research England QR Strategic Priorities Fund.
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