Disparity between government departments over return-to-work policies is sparking unrest across the APS, with some agencies demanding their staff get back to the office while others insist they stay away.
Each department makes its own decision, with the differences in policies boiling down to workloads and approaches as determined by agency heads and HR managers.
The varying instructions are, however, over whether workers must continue their duties at home, at the office, in rotations of both — and everything in between — causing confusion and upset at the coalface.
A sense of inequity is growing among employees and coordinating efforts across numerous projects and portfolios is proving increasingly difficult.
Compounding the matter is the growing number of workers attempting to switch employers by applying for jobs in agencies where they feel the working arrangements suit them better.
Recruiters are finding that employers of choice are those agencies providing flexibility in working arrangements on an ongoing basis.
“It is an employee’s market right now, and any agency not offering those flexibilities as far as working remotely is concerned will find it hard to attract candidates,” one said.
“Not only that, but there seems to be an exit from those employers who won’t be more flexible. We are being told that work-from-home has been shown to be effective and that it should now be a permanent component of the mix on offer.”
Across all levels of the APS, a staff sentiment was expressed when asked by The Mandarin, that a clearer sector-wide direction was needed.
The Australian Public Service Commission confirmed that each agency made its own assessment.
“Transition plans for returning to usual workplaces are dependent on an agency’s own risk assessment, operational needs and jurisdictional circumstances,” an APSC spokeswoman said.
“Flexibility, including the ability to work from home, continues to be available to APS employees in line with operational requirements of their employing agency. Agency heads remain responsible for making decisions concerning flexible working arrangements, including working from home.”
The Mandarin asked a number of departments about their approach to the transitioning workforces back to the office. Few responses provided a specific return-to-office date, instead making general overtures to adhering to the public health advice of the ACT government. In all cases, the departments said their decision-making was done with the health and wellbeing of APS as its top priority.
Staff at the federal Department of Health were instructed to work from home (where reasonably practicable) on August 12 when new public health directions were issued by ACT Health.
When asked when health employees would be asked to return to the office, the department said it was acting in line with guidance from the Australian Public Service Commission and the ACT Pathway Forward plan that identified October 15 as the date to gradually return employees to the office.
“The department will monitor and manage staffing numbers to make sure it complies with relevant restrictions,” a spokesperson said.
“We expect the majority of our staff will continue to work flexibly over this period and remain focussed on maintaining a safe workplace for our staff.”
The Attorney-General’s Department Canberra-based workforce moved to working-from-home arrangements in early August and a spokeswoman said the department would continue to comply with public health restrictions applicable to its operations. She added that ‘comprehensive procedures’ were in place to ensure that there was a COVIDSafe office in line with current health advice.
“The department continues to consult with staff and plan for their safe, gradual and flexible return to the office. Individual staff circumstances, such as personal health status and care obligations, are key considerations during this process,” she said.
“The specific timing of returning to usual workplaces will be determined with consideration to our risk assessment, operational needs and circumstances in each location.”
The Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications said its highest priority in the decision about when and how staff would return to the office was the health and wellbeing of its employees.
“The department continues to support flexible work arrangements, including working from home,” a spokesperson said.
“The department continues to undertake careful planning and consultation with staff for a safe and staged return to the office.”
At the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA), which has had to adapt the onsite work of its workforces in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney, a spokeswoman said there was no ‘one size fits all’ plan in response to COVID-19 pandemic. She added that those employees who have been required to work onsite have been encouraged to get a vaccine if they can.
“DVA is encouraging staff residing in states and territories with COVID-19 restrictions to continue to work from home for the time being, unless operational requirements exist for them to return to the office,” she said.
“Staff who are required to attend the office will adhere to all public health advice relevant to their state or territory, including checking in, hand hygiene, wearing masks and physical distancing.
“Once staff return to the office the department’s normal flexible working arrangements will apply, which include some home-based work subject to operational requirements.”
The Department of Social Services has already commenced a return to office-based work, a spokesperson said, using guidance from the APSC.
“We remain focussed on maintaining a safe workplace for our staff, and we will continue to be guided by the relevant jurisdictional health orders as we return to office-based work,” he said.
Some other agencies said most workers were still at home and the return would be gradual and aligned with advice from state and territory governments.
“Currently, most of our employees in the ACT are working from home, and a small number of employees are working from our office locations where required by their role or circumstances,” a Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment spokesman said.
“We are working through the ACT Government’s pathway forward to transition staff back to the workplace gradually, safely and in accordance with health orders.”
Services Australia general manager Hank Jongen echoed the comments, adding that a number of the agency’s staff had worked from offices to maintain payments and services under COVID-safe plans.
“Services Australia has provided essential support to Australians throughout the pandemic while adhering to health orders and directions of relevant state and territory health authorities,” Jongen said.
A Comcare spokesman said the agency was currently developing transition plans for returning workers to offices in states and territories emerging from lockdowns.
He also said the agency was committed to continuing to offer flexible arrangements under a work policy.
“Consistent with work health and safety obligations, we are conducting a risk assessment, consulting our workforce and considering appropriate risk control measures,” he said.
“We operate in nine locations across Australia, in every state and territory, so returning workers to offices will vary by jurisdiction in line with state and territory health advice and orders.”
A Treasury Department spokesperson said staff returning to offices would “be gradual and align with the public health orders in each jurisdiction and our operational needs”.
Melissa Donnelly, national secretary of the CPSU, said agencies would need to act on state and territory advice but she urged the employers not to rush the process and to consult with staff, unions and health and safety representatives.
“What we do not want to see is APS agencies jumping the gun. We want to see a staged and sensible return to offices,” she said.
“When it is appropriate for employees working from home to return, it’s clear that there will not be a one size fits all for this process. That is why it must be done in consultation with employees and their union.”
Donnelly said the management of ventilation, rapid testing and maintaining support for vulnerable people would be key to success.
“The commonwealth has an obligation to set an example for all employers about best practice for returning to work, it is critical that this is done properly to avoid further waves of infections,” she said.
Public service minister Ben Morton was contacted for comment.