The VPS’s new flexible work policy is a product of the past year — lessons learned from working differently, an increased demand for services, and a hit to the economy — as well as the values that have long been upheld by VPS commissioner Adam Fennessy.
The launch of the Victorian Public Sector Commission’s refreshed flexible work policy follows a year of lockdowns, during which the public service workforce experienced a massive shift to remote work.
The policy recognises that, in 2021, the public service must perform a balancing act by supporting staff and the economy, while also continuing to serve the community.
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“This is a big opportunity for the Victorian Public Service to work through these new hybrid flexible ways of working, while upholding the commitment to high quality services, and to diversity, inclusion, and an equitable workforce,” Fennessy tells The Mandarin.
Half a decade ago, Fennessy was the secretary of the state Department of Environment Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), and was pushing for gender equality and flexible work arrangements within the department as well as across the public service.
During a 2016 interview with The Mandarin, Fennessy recounted how he had received “a fair bit of pushback” when he shifted to part-time work to look after his children a few years earlier. Asked whether attitudes had changed by 2016, Fennessy had replied: “A little bit.”
Asked the question again five years down the track, and the now VPS commissioner can confirm that change has “accelerated enormously” due to COVID-19.
“It was often said in the last year that those sorts of changes that might take 10 years to work through a system — like a big public service — effectively, got crunched into about eight weeks when Victoria went into a deep and fast shutdown last year,” he says.
Many Victorian families were forced to figure out, very quickly, how to balance work and life.
“Anecdotally, and from some of the data, a lot more men were getting more involved in caring responsibilities. And I think that’s really important because, ultimately, ‘success’ is when things like caring go beyond the gender issue — beyond a women’s or a men’s issue — and just become something we do, because it’s a life priority,” Fennessy says.
“But we’ve also found from the research that there still have been some significant disadvantages to women who’ve had to take on both caring and work responsibilities. So it’s not a clear picture, but I do think that the disruption of lockdown showed that it can be done, and that change does get accelerated. And to me that’s exciting.”
Fennessy says that attitudes toward flexible work were shifting before the pandemic, but at a very slow pace.
“The progress towards more flexible workforces — where there was a better cultural attitude to flexibility — had changed. And certainly in the earlier parts of my career we were seeing changes, particularly where we were focused very intentionally on more diverse and inclusive workforces,” he says.
“So the strong focus we put on gender equality — and this was when I was back in the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning — that did have an impact. And I know John Bradley, who’s the current secretary of DELWP, he’s continued those reforms. So they did make a difference.”
So how exactly has the pandemic informed the new flexible work policy?
Fennessy says that while the VPS’s previous flexible work policy, ‘all roles flex’, was a good policy, it wasn’t consistently applied. The disruption of the pandemic and Victoria’s ‘deep lockdown’ presented the perfect opportunity for the policy to be refreshed.
“That’s the upside of disruption. It forced us to innovate, and we realised there were a lot of benefits. There were also challenges. It wasn’t easy. It was a lot of people having to juggle a lot of work,” Fennessy says.
Before COVID, the norm was for full time employees to spend five days a week at their workplace. Now, as Victoria continues to lift restrictions, staff are returning to their workplaces for three days a week. They will also have the option to negotiate other flexible work arrangements, depending on their individual circumstances and roles.
“That was in line with consistent staff feedback throughout the lockdown period — particularly through the pulse surveys that we’re doing every month — that people were thinking, after lockdown, perhaps two to three days a week in the office would be a good balance, and the other two to three days could be either from home, or from a nearby office.”
As CBD offices become busier (subject to chief health officer advice), new suburban hubs will also give staff the option to work in an office closer to home. However, employees are being encouraged to balance remote work with office-based work, so they can contribute to the Melbourne CBD economy, broader suburban economy, and regional economy.
The Victorian government has recognised that no two public servants are the same. The VPSC has asked agencies to implement the flexible work policy based on the specific services they provide and the roles of their employees, rather than having a one-size-fits-all approach.
“Flexible work is available to staff by default, and all roles can have some sort of flexibility, but not all types of flexibility will work for every role,” Fennessy says.
“Where there might be shift work, which will occur in say corrections or health, the flexibility might be around the rotation of shifts or the duration of shift work. But where it’s frontline, that role will continue to be required to be delivered in person … So it really does depend on what service is being delivered.”
Meanwhile, the VPSC is “keeping an eye on that broader diversity and inclusion lens” to ensure that flexible work arrangements can be adjusted to benefit those who need them.
“We’re very focused on the diversity and inclusion opportunities for greater participation for people with disability, for people with caring responsibilities, for people who live further out, and outside of urban centres.”
The policy and VPS working arrangements will be reviewed quarterly to ensure that they are effective as possible, Fennessy notes.
“There’ll be some things that will really work, there’ll be other things we will try and recalibrate, and we’ll also share and learn with other jurisdictions. And we’ll learn from the private sector and the not-for-profit sector as we’re all facing the same issues in Melbourne and Victoria,” he says.
“So it is about bringing balance back, getting the best of what we learned from deep lockdown, and also learning from other sectors.”
One of the aspects of work arrangements that will be examined as part of the quarterly review is the way hybrid working impacts upon staff opportunities and interactions, as there is a risk that people who predominantly work in the office may receive more opportunities than the people who mostly work remotely.
Fennessy says it will be important for leaders, managers, and organisations to think differently about hybrid working to ensure they’re not “unconsciously privileging people who are around more physically”, and to recognise staff contributions whether they’re in the office or at home.
“What we’re all learning is that the hybrid ways of working will still allow people to interact, and we’re going to have to develop new behaviours so that those risks of not seeing people’s contributions because they’re not in an office, that those risks are clear and managed by organisations,” he says.
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