A week or so back I was in a pal’s “backyard”. My friend works at a place doing that digital products/services thing. Some bloody good ones at that. It’d have been rude not to have a nosy round his workplace and catch up.

It hits lunchtime, it’s been a while so we’re having a good gas over coffee. He’s enjoying his work again, always good to see a talented mate in the groove of work and life, and he gets onto comparing it to his previous role in an “agency”, a “digital agency”. He “gets to spend months working on just one thing rather than jumping hour to hour from one thing to the next”. It’s a world of immersion, luxurious compared to what he’s experienced before. It’s good where he works: Good people, good work, good place.

We got ruminating about what we would called this sort of place. It’s not an agency. Maybe it’s a studio. A design business? A software house? Creative technology firm? We go on, and start to shudder and giggle at what we’re saying. We didn’t really come to a conclusion, we move on, comparing notes on how my mate’s place and where I work operate.

I’ve posted before about working at HMRC Digital. A lot of how our places of work go about doing work: Comparable. Agile, sprints, exploring through prototypes, working “with the business”. They seem to have the edge getting something working out into the open faster, but something to work on. There’s breakout spaces, and big whiteboard wall surfaces you can draw on. And we’re nodding at how alike our “public” and “private” workplaces are.

Stop for a second there. Pretty amazing that, ways of working in the public and private sectors being alike.

And then we get onto coffee. We’re in a coffee place. I am a recently converted liker of coffee after years of stubbornly avoiding it.

“Man, we have fresh ground coffee delivered at work, lovely stuff, and percolators we can take to our desks. We have coffee rounds! And a wicked coffee machine if we have the time to wait for it to hiss a coffee out! We have really smart kitchens. Not over the top, just smart, maybe so we look after them.”

“And mugs?” I ask.

“Oh! The mugs in the cupboards are from Ikea. Small detail.” And he goes on. They’ve also got a table tennis table, a pool table, and other stuff. “It’s a nice place to go to, not just for work,” he concludes.

I raise my eyebrows. “We don’t have any of those add-ons. But I wouldn’t expect table tennis and pool tables in the public sector. But we have to bring in our own coffee, even if it’s granules. And, or teabags. And a cup, or mug. And we don’t even have teaspoons. We might actually – if we do they’re either really scarce, or really well hidden. But I never see them, so I always have a teaspoon and emergency teabags in my backpack.”

My mate looks surprised. “No! Having them just sounds… normal to me. Don’t you miss those things?”

Yes, I do, but I suggest maybe it’s not normal, that all the places we’ve worked before, where they had mugs, teaspoons, teabags, coffee, all that being provided was abnormal compared to the rest of the working world, we just find it normal because that’s our experience. I can hear my own doubt as I say it.

My mate confirms: “No.”

“But!” my mate starts to point out, “The difference in what we do is you’re working on how we interact with government. I am not. We,” he says pointing between both of us, “don’t have a choice in how we do that. We are forced to do it the way set down. It must be great going to work every day. Isn’t not having those normal things the price to pay for getting to do that work?”

I pause for a second. Is it? Is not having “normal” at work a price to pay for the kind of work I do? I don’t know. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. Those normal things would be paid for by the public. Would that be right? I can see why we have to provide our own. But for all the talk earlier in our chat about how alike my mate’s workplace is and my workplace we find a big gap. And as we talk further we find other gaps, most of which feel like things that can be sorted or made better. (And I scribble those points down later.)

I don’t want this chat to end on a downer about working in the public sector. It is exciting, it is challenging (and sometimes avoidably), it is important, but this chat has unexpectedly explored compromises, the catching up still to happen, the boundaries of what is normal, what is grounded, what is expected at work, from work. Maybe there will always be a berth between making digital services in the public and private sectors. Should they be the same? But should one be at an disadvantage to the other? And reversibly at an advantage to the other?

I am mindful of this, thinking of people who have done good work creating digitally enabled services in the public sector over the past several years to help it progress, fast, and have now gone (back) to the private sector. (And not just the Mike Brackens and Ben Terretts.) I hope the digital centred public sector won’t be a place for people to just earn their spurs, then graduate from. I hope it will be a place of work that is comparable to non-public places of work, and retains the best people as much as possible. It needs good people, more good people.

I try to lighten the mood. It is far from darkness, we’re just standing in a shadowy corner of the conversation.

“Have you heard about the Tory councillor in Bradford kicking off about toasters being banned in the city hall? He did a video saying a toaster is a part of being a nice place to be or something. Like having a toaster at work is a sign of normality.”

My mate laughs. “You got toasters in your place?”

I shake my head, laughing. “Of course not. Health and safety nightmare surely!”

“We ain’t allowed toasters either. I don’t think I have ever worked anywhere that has allowed them. Is having a toaster normal? Is that normal?”

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