The great return: What’s next for public servants as government embraces the future of work?

By Matthew Elmas

Tuesday October 20, 2020

Peter Woolcott. Image: Australian Public Service Commission.

After the better part of a year turning the wheels of government largely remotely, public servants are, slowly, returning to the office.

Workplace-by-workplace, agency heads at federal and state levels are being encouraged to facilitate, where safe, a mass move to some mix of in-office and at-home work.

It is, as Australian Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott clearly recognised last month when updating APSC advice, time to move from the largest remote work experiment in the history of government to a new challenge, one that will likely shape how, and where, public servants work for years to come.

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“As the number of COVID-19 cases stabilises and remains low in most communities, the natural progression is now for employees to return to their usual workplaces in greater numbers,” Woolcott tells The Mandarin.

“… We now need to turn our minds to what the longer term future of flexible working looks like.”

Government offices changed drastically earlier this year about two thirds of almost 140,000 APS staff moved to remote work, while a skeleton crew of sorts continued to attend and maintain physical workplaces.

The scale of the transition has been immense. While remote work has existed in the APS for several decades, most public servants surveyed in a recent UNSW/CQUniversity study did not work from home pre-pandemic, a history that’s been flipped on its head by COVID-19.

The evidence so far suggests this resulting human resources experiment has largely been a success, but what remains to be seen is how, and ultimately to what extent, this newfound flexibility will evolve alongside a return to physical workplaces.

Lessons learned during the pandemic will be invaluable, and on that front some remaining cultural barriers have been identified, meaning senior leaders have more work to do in establishing hybrid offices that promote employee well being, maintain productivity and ensure harmony within teams.

The great return: government embraces future of work

On 29 September, the APSC updated its advice for Commonwealth agency heads to encourage staff to return to their usual workplaces, where circumstances (read: coronavirus) permit.

It’s ostensibly an agency-by-agency approach, taken against a familiar backdrop for Australia, where coronavirus risk drastically changes by state, and in the case of Victoria regions within a state.

Agency heads have been charged with co-coordinating both a return to office and the development of COVIDSafe plans, which will necessarily differ from workplace to workplace, but will ensure factors like social distancing are written into the development of new processes.

An APSC spokesperson noted seven considerations for return to work plans, but employees and supervisors are currently being encouraged to discuss, review and formalise their own working from home arrangements, in line with broader agency advice.

APSC’s considerations for a COVIDSafe APS:

  • Systemic risk assessments in accordance with Safe Work Australia’s code of practice;
  • Adhering to physical distancing principles, such as in kitchens and break-out spaces;
  • Maximum occupancy capacity of enclosed spaces, including meeting rooms;
  • Modifying workplace attendance arrangements;
  • Connectivity and employee well being;
  • Guidance and support to assist employees in the transition to their usual workplace; and
  • Ongoing workplace health and safety implications and obligations.

Distilling this list, the largest change in day-to-day work for public servants is likely to be how agencies handle which staff return to the office, when, and in what numbers.

Businesses are already embracing rolling rosters of in-office and remote teams, with staggered start times and alternate days addressing the obvious health challenge associated with dozen-floor office towers serviced by just a few lifts – this will also be a feature of the APS return to office.

“The return of APS employees to their usual workplaces may require modifications to employees’ workplace attendance to ensure physical distancing is maintained,” an APSC spokesperson said. “There may also need to be public transport risk mitigation measures, affecting employee travel.”

Consideration will, however, be given to individual circumstances, and managers are expected to work closely with staff in cases where public servants aren’t yet comfortable returning or may be in a high risk category.

The stakes are high. Ultimately how agencies manage these rosters, including balancing equitable distribution of office and remote work access, will be crucial in determining how productive the public service is in administering the government’s COVID-19 recovery agenda.

Public servants embrace remote work

Thankfully, fears productivity may have suffered during the work from home transition appear not to have been realised as the public service has largely embraced its new working model over the last eight months.

That’s the major finding of a report published recently by CQUniversity associate professor Linda Colley and UNSW Canberra senior lecturer Sue Williamson, who surveyed 6,000 APS staff during the pandemic about their experience working from home.

The pair not only found that most public servants relished newfound flexibility in place of work, but were also on the whole just as, if not more, productive.

Upwards of 67% of women and 59% of men surveyed said they were getting more work done than they would at the office, while among 1,400 managers surveyed by the researchers, more than a third (34.5%) said staff were more productive, and only 8% said productivity had declined.

Managers reported more motivated teams and workers said they were able to undertake more complex work from home, free from distractions associated with an office environment, Colley explains.

“Lots of public servants have been able to do different and new things during the pandemic,” Colley tells The Mandarin.

“Lots of public servants had more work and rose to the challenge, and lots of them enjoyed the autonomy, they quite liked the fact that no one was breathing over their shoulder, so they could release control a little bit and the work still got done.”

The most consistent finding across the survey was that most staff reported their ability to do things like contact or collaborate with colleagues, get timely decisions from managers, and even maintain professional networks had not changed, suggesting the APS has made the transition to remote work without rocking the boat too much.

Although a significant number of surveyed public servants reported being less able to collaborate (23.8%), mentor others (24.2%) and access opportunities like new projects (21.53%).

Reflecting on the research, Woolcott said working from home had worked well for many agencies and employees through the coronavirus crisis, but there are nevertheless benefits to reviving usual workplaces.

“Attention should also be given to the benefits of working in usual workplaces, such as sustainability, greater connectivity and the ability to support the wellbeing of employees,” Woolcott says.

Refining the model: advice for a more flexible APS

While the study affirms enthusiasm for remote work across the APS moving into the future, there are some lingering pain points identified by researchers that senior leaders may need to address over the coming months.

One issue sits underneath the bump in productivity during COVID-19, with 28.6% of staff saying they worked more hours during the pandemic, and others reporting they were actually less productive, but worked more to compensate.

Crucially, Colley and Williamson found this wasn’t just attributed to increased workloads during the pandemic, with many staff working more because they felt guilty about working from home, or felt as though their manager would think they weren’t being productive.

“There is scope for managers to be more engaged on employee well being in relation to working hours, reviewing workloads and excess hours, and ensuring flexible hours (flex-time) continues to be available at home,” the researchers say.

Colley and Williamson’s advice for a more flexible APS:

  • Agencies need to develop transparent and equitable work from home policies;
  • Managers should become more engaged in employee well being in reviewing work hours and workloads;
  • Agencies should review performance management systems to ensure their aligned with remote work; and
  • ‘Flexible by default’ means ensuring work from home remains an option to staff if they desire.

Cultural barriers remain a challenge for public servants

Cultural barriers reared their head in other areas too, particularly among the 16% of surveyed staff who did not get a chance to work from home.

Two thirds of these staff were unable to work remotely because of the nature of their role, but a significant portion also said managers would not let them, or their agency culture was not conductive to remote work.

“Lots of [in-office] staff talked about their colleagues being lucky, but also there was a little bit of resentment when they could see someone who had a similar job but just a different manager that permitted them,” Colley says.

This is a headline risk for the APS in embracing remote work at scale over the longer term, underscoring the need to develop transparent policies that provide equitable opportunities for flexibility across agencies.

“It’s going to lead those people to leaving those teams, and potentially it could create a retention issue in the future for the public sector, if people perceive the private sector to be more flexible,” Colley says.

Higher level hurdles also remain, only 17% of surveyed public servants said their agency strongly supported flexible working, while 36.5% somewhat agreed.

Workers said they wanted to make requests to continue working from home regularly, but remain worried about scepticism from managers now that the APSC has encouraged agency heads back to the office.

“These things work better when there’s leadership from the top and behaviors are modeled, especially for men who have had a real career blockage in their minds; they know women that work part-time and from home aren’t very well respected at times, and they don’t want that to reflect on  them,” Colley says.

“There’s definitely a cultural permission of sorts.”

Summing up their findings, Colley and Williamson said the COVID-19 pandemic has helped the public service overcome longstanding barriers.

While challenges, both cultural and technological, remain, the message from public servants is clear: working from home should be a fixture of whatever future of work the public sector moves towards.

“Most people don’t want to work from home all the time, a very small number want to do it never, but most people want to be able to work remotely some of the time,” Colley says.

“They want to know there’s a structure so they can plan their work-life balance, and that goes for management as well.”

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