Flexible working and the pandemic: more than just working from home

By and

Wednesday September 30, 2020

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After six months of working from home, APS employees are now being urged to go back to the office. On 29 September, the Australian Public Service Commission advised agencies to bring employees back into their usual workplaces, in accordance with the appropriate workplace health and safety policies.

This does not come as a surprise. Last month we published an analysis of all Australian governments’ responses to the pandemic and the timing of when they advised employees to work from home to avoid spreading the contagion. We found that the Australian government was one of the last jurisdictions to send people home. It was also one of the first to indicate that agencies should prepare for employees to return, issuing advice to this effect as far back as May 2020.

We predicted that working from home was unlikely to become the “new normal” in the public sector. Our reasoning was twofold. Firstly, our 2018 research identified some resistance to allowing people to work from home, despite having the right policies in place.

Secondly, changes external to the public sector, such as the forced working from home during a pandemic, were less likely to stick than internal changes that the bureaucracy chooses.

Our most recent research, in a report released today, indicates strong support from managers and employees for continuing to work from home. Many would like working from home for some of the week to become the norm.

There is a strong case for letting employees to continue to work from home. We surveyed over 6,000 APS employees, and managers told us that their teams were just as productive or even more productive when working from home.

Employees had extra time from not commuting, which meant they could spend more time on work and more time with their families. One in six employees were also more engaged with their work. This was a win for employees and employers.

Our survey results show that some women respondents favoured working from home as it enabled them to increase their working hours. They were better able to combine work and caring responsibilities. They also stated that they were able to get more done while working at home.

As one employee told us: “(I was) able to balance caring responsibilities with my husband while both at home. I was able to move to full-time hours, rather than (stay) part-time”.

“If employees are enabled to work from home, or to continue working from home, this may lessen the need for women to work part-time.”

If employees are enabled to work from home, or to continue working from home, this may lessen the need for women to work part-time. This has a series of positive flow-on effects, including reducing the gender pay gap, higher levels of superannuation accumulation and enabling women to access benefits sometimes only available to full-time employees, such as professional development opportunities.

Working from home then, may have far-reaching impacts beyond increasing flexibility, productivity and enabling a better work and family balance, to generate wider economic benefits.

Public servants have shown they’re flexible and adaptable and work hard when doing their job at home. We know that managers support working flexibly. As we all move into COVID-normal, continuing the flexibility of working from home for part of the week may yield ongoing benefits to employees, their families, agencies and the economy.

Associate Professor Linda Colley, CQUniversity and Dr Sue Williamson, UNSW Canberra discuss these and other findings in Working during the Pandemic: From resistance to revolution? The authors would like to thank the Community and Public Sector Union for partnering on this project.

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