APS ‘future of work’ trends call for extra middle management training

By Melissa Coade

Thursday October 28, 2021

Sue Williamson, Peter Fray, Criss Sumner, Nik Dawson.
Sue Williamson, Peter Fray, Criss Sumner, Nik Dawson. (The Mandarin)

With a post-pandemic reality on the horizon, the APS is turning its mind to building stronger cultures of trust, overcoming bad attitudes to presenteeism, and achieving ‘right to disconnect’ measures for employees. 

The idea that work will never be the same in a post-COVID world is not a foregone conclusion — and the two big questions facing government departments and agencies now that public health restrictions are easing include what to transition the APS workforce to, and how.

According to associate professor Sue Williamson from UNSW Canberra’s school of business, employees prefer to work 2-3 days a week from the office. This sentiment hints at a hybrid work future, the human resources and industrial relations expert told a Mandarin Talks panel

“Hybrid work is here to stay and I know that APS organisations are thinking about how they can make it work,” Williamson said. 

“Employees don’t want to spend all their time at home, because they do value being in the office. They need that connection with colleagues, but they do want to work hybridly,” she added. 

Williamson recently undertook a survey of 5,000 public servants, as well as an academic literature review of working from home research from the last 10 years. She found that most public servants preferred a working from home (WFH) arrangement of at least three days a week. 

Of course, the reality of what is possible and what working arrangements are available to public servants depends on the nature of their work and the approach of their leadership teams. Williamson said she was aware of APS agencies that had a cap on the number of days an employee is permitted to work flexibly (or away from the physical office), for example, and that conversations were happening about what the optimum amount of time was for a public servant to be away from the office. 

“Because working from home is so context-dependent on the organisation, on the employee’s home setup, on how they work with their team, all those sorts of things, it is really difficult to get an optimum number of days or hours a week that employees should work from home,” Williamson said.

“One of the difficulties going forward is that it will be individual negotiations, as has always happened, with the right to request flexible working. But now it’s occurring on a much larger scale and that’s going to be really important,” she said. 

The issues facing the public sector post-pandemic are bigger than options for flexible work arrangements. They prompt considerations about organisational structure, future demand for skills from prospective talent, and what culture of trust can be fostered in the absence of 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday, in-person dealings. 

The public sector also must grapple with the new expectations that individuals in the workforce — from top to bottom — have about the work-life balance and creating the conditions where they feel they are performing at their best.

To this end, Qualtrics XM’s Crissa Sumner, who specialises in employee experiences, said that it was important to invest in training to develop management and leadership capabilities. 

“I think it’s important to recognise that managing a remote workforce is quite different. There’s a different set of skills required and managing by outcomes is going to be really, really important,” Sumner said.

“In terms of supporting these changes, there’s a need for agencies to be thinking about how they invest in management, development, leadership development in those new areas.”

Additional training for middle managers on performance management and appraisal issues was also important for the public service during this transition period, Williams noted, because managing off-site employees required a level of trust which acknowledged that just because workers were not ‘seen’ did not mean they were not working.

“Pre-pandemic, we know that a lot of managers thought, ‘If I can’t see them, they must be goofing-off watching Netflix’,” Williamson said.

A positive consequence of the forced WFH arrangements brought about by COVID-19 restrictions is greater trust between managers and employees, she added. With an improved ‘psychological contract’ between public servants and their middle managers, the next thing to consider cultivating is the idea of ‘the right to disconnect’. 

“We know now that managers do know that their staff can work productively from home — and multitask in multiple meetings. Agencies are moving towards an outcomes-focused performance framework, which is a really positive thing,” Williamson said. 

“I think the right to disconnect is something that is really interesting — there are enterprise agreements in Europe with a clause saying ‘you don’t have to respond to your employer after 6pm’. Whether or not it needs to be codified, like a lot of other APS regulations, is something that needs to be thought about as well,” she said. 

Commenting on the new culture of trust that a more hybridised public service workforce demanded, UTS economist and data scientist Nik Dawson said new ways of surveilling remote employees disturbed him. He called for more transparency over how staff were being monitored by their government agency employers and said public servants should be clear about the extent to which their hours and performance were under digital surveillance. 

“[Employees] are constantly being tracked and should be under no illusions — when you’re working for especially big companies they are most likely tracking you as you’re working,” Dawson said. 

“I’d certainly think there should be at least some sort of concept of opt-in to something and people should know what exactly, and how they’re being tracked. 

The October Mandarin Talks was hosted by Private Media managing editor Peter Fray. Premium subscribers can re-watch the episode here.


READ MORE:

Hybrid work here to stay in APS but will office access determine opportunity?

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