What’s next for flexible working arrangements in the public sector?

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Wednesday July 7, 2021

Creative options to regulate flexible working are being developed.
Creative options to regulate flexible working are being developed. (denisismagilov/Adobe)

As organisations consider new ways of working, developments in the private sector might provide some inspiration for public sector organisations.

Telstra was a pioneer in expanding flexibility for employees, introducing ‘all roles flex’ in 2013. This policy made flexibility the default position, putting the onus on managers to explain why a job role could not be performed flexibly if requested by an employee. Public sector organisations followed suit, and in 2016, the NSW government made all roles flexible. An evaluation conducted last year found that flexible working has become embedded in the NSW public service, improving employee wellbeing and increasing productivity.

Now Telstra has gone even further, adopting a ‘location-agnostic’ approach for all office and call centre roles. Positions will be advertised without a location to attract the best employees. Telstra’s new policy enables employees to choose where, and when they work, responding to employee preference.

The Victorian government has also updated its ‘all roles flex’ policy, to embed flexible working. The new policy details that flexible working is now the default position, with every role having some form of flexibility. Significantly, flexibility is being embedded into the employment life-cycle. Employees will be consulted about flexible working throughout the recruitment process and while working in the job, and asked for feedback when they leave the organisation.

Similarly, Deloitte has reassessed its flexible working policies in the aftermath of COVID-19. The company has increased working hours flexibility with the removal of core hours. Deloitte has also introduced a paid wellbeing day each year for employees.

READ MORE: Deloitte to deliver commonwealth’s ‘pivotal’ digital health technology

While organisations are reviewing and updating their flexible working arrangements, researchers have been reviewing the right to request flexible working arrangements provisions in the Fair Work Act. While any employee can informally request to work flexibly, this legislation specifically provides those with caring responsibilities, those with a disability, older employees, those experiencing family or domestic violence, or supporting someone experiencing domestic violence, with a formal right to request flexible working arrangements.

This is quite a narrow list and excludes many employees, and may now be outdated. Researchers have called for the eligibility criteria to be expanded in the wake of the pandemic, due to the  proven advantages associated with flexible working.

A hybrid working arrangement, with some time in the office and some days worked at home, benefits employers and is increasingly a preference for employees. Organisations benefit through cost savings associated with having fewer employees in the office, which can reduce the office footprint, and potential productivity improvements.

Some organisations have even gone fully remote. Many employees, however, do not want to work at home all the time. Economists suggest that this may lead to a move to amend the right to request provisions to enable employees to request to work on their employers’ premises.

With remote work blurring the boundaries between work and home, Australian public sector workplaces are seeing an emerging push from unions to protect employees’ personal time. New enterprise bargaining clauses seek to place limits on employer expectations around digital availability.

This momentum arose following the 2020 enterprise agreement covering Victorian Police workers, which provides certain employees with the right to disconnect outside of working hours. Employees are not required to read or respond to emails or phone calls from supervisors other than for genuine emergencies. This enterprise agreement clause may flow on, with public sector unions predicted to negotiate for a similar right.

The “right to disconnect” originated in Europe, particularly in France and Germany, in response to growth in remote work and work intensification. In France every organisation with 50 employees or more is required to negotiate with employees about the use of ICT, with a view to enabling employees to have time off to rest and recuperate.

In the wake of the pandemic, creative options to regulate flexible working are being developed, and the public sector has an opportunity to be at the forefront of new developments.


Managing a hybrid team in the public sector and public service

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