Flexible work a hit with ABS staff as ‘virtual teams’ become the norm

By Stephen Easton

Monday January 14, 2019

Australian Bureau of Statistics staff have enthusiastically taken up teleworking and other flexible employment arrangements over the past few years, and staff surveys suggest most feel their work lives have improved as a result.

The latest results, finalised late in 2018, show 82% now work in a virtual team – one whose members aren’t all in one place – compared to 67% in 2016. Formal teleworking agreements were in place for 37% of all staff as of last September, up from 32% mid-year and 28% in September 2017.

Most of the people who filled out the survey are among this group — 80% of respondents said they had teleworked in the previous three months, and three quarters of that sub-group have a formal agreement to work remotely.

“The latest results show 82% now work in a virtual team – one whose members aren’t all in one place – compared to 67% in 2016.”

Very few of them think managing staff is difficult in a flexible work environment: 90% gave either neutral or positive responses on this question, up from 84% in 2016. Just under 55% said it was either easy or very easy, compared to about 38% in 2016.

A bit over 36% said flexible work made managing staff “neither easy nor difficult” in the recent survey versus 46% in 2016, showing a significant group of ABS staff have shifted from neutral to positive views, which is the general trend between the two surveys.

Well over 90% report they have been provided the necessary tools and technology to successfully work in a virtual team.

About 1084 staff members — around 40% of the ABS workforce — answered the most recent questionnaire about the various changes to work arrangements and office facilities that began in 2014, aiming to give staff more options around where, when and how they contribute. As well as teleworking, there are also opportunities for part-time hours, compressed work weeks, job sharing and a shift towards activity-based office set-ups.

Specific changes have been influenced by what staff asked for in previous surveys. In 2016, that included sit-to-stand desks, better video-conferencing facilities and improved Wi-Fi.

Almost half of the 2018 survey respondents had worked at the ABS for over a decade, giving them significant experience of past arrangements, and the gender split was nearly identical to that of the entire agency. 

How easy or difficult is it to manage staff in a flexible work environment?
2016 ABS staff survey
2018 ABS staff survey
Very difficult
Neither easy nor difficult
Very easy

In general, positive responses have been steadily going up since 2014 as the flexible options have become business as usual, and senior executives believe the program is responsible for a decrease in unscheduled absences of more than one day per staff member over three years.

In the latest survey, 87% said their personal productivity had improved, while 72% thought their team’s efficiency had either improved or stayed the same. Another 16% weren’t sure, leaving 12% who think the flexible arrangements have cost time and money.

Among managers, 74% were either satisfied or very satisfied with their team’s ability to get their work done on time, and 78% indicated the quality of their work has remained satisfactory or very satisfactory.

Activity-based working is often difficult to introduce — a lot of people like having their own desks — but in the ABS, 87% of respondents could at least see the health and safety benefits. The number who complained about the adequacy of video-conferencing technology declined from a small 7% to a tiny 3% in the last two years.

The ABS appears to be keeping its staff fairly well informed about the five-year shift to flexible work arrangements and office layouts: the 2018 survey suggests about 58% are satisfied and 19% are very satisfied with the information flow. Another 18% were neutral, leaving only 5% who wanted more communication.

The success of the ABS flexible work initiatives has not gone unnoticed. In November, chief financial officer Lily Viertmann picked up an Outstanding Contribution to Public Administration Award from the Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand for her role in leading the project, which comes with $20,000 to spend on a professional development sabbatical.

And in June, she accepted the title of “Champion of Flexible Work” on behalf of the ABS as part of Flexible Working Day, a fairly new initiative of a Canberra marketing firm that aspires to make it an international event.

“In our ten offices across Australia, our expectation is that managers say ‘yes’ to reasonable flexible work requests from employees,” Viertmann told The Mandarin.

Corrections: this article originally quoted incorrect percentages for survey respondents who work in a virtual team, and for those who think flexible work arrangements have reduced efficiency.

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