It was reported last week that APS employees would be required to return to their usual pre-pandemic workplaces earlier than originally planned. This week, the Hon Ben Morton, MP, the minister for the public service, reportedly stated that APS employees will need to show productivity gains before they will be permitted to work from home.
Morton has recommended that employees start gather gathering evidence to make the case for why they should work at home.
Last month, my colleagues and I released an evidence-based report examining the future of work and new ways of working. We examined 10 years of academic literature on working from home and other forms of remote working. We also analysed an enormous amount of practitioner research that has emerged over the past 18 months on remote working and the future of work. I also spoke about these issues at a webinar hosted by The Mandarin.
The majority of existing research shows that productivity is maintained or even increased when employees work from home or work hybridly. The Productivity Commission also states that, as organisations adapt and learn as they experiment with new ways of working, productivity will remain the same or improve in the longer term.
Morton has been reported as saying that employees will need to “outline the productivity gains from working from home”. Measuring productivity in the public sector is notoriously difficult. While it is not unreasonable to require employees to provide reasons as to why they should work from home, requiring employees to assess productivity and provide examples to support their business case might not be easy. Clear guidance will be needed to assist employees and managers as they conduct these negotiations.
My colleagues and I conducted research last year that showed APS managers were very supportive of employees continuing to work from home. Many APS managers experienced an epiphany, realising that working from home could be undertaken successfully. Academic research has also shown, however, that managerial discretion on who can work flexibly is variable across an organisation. This makes the need for clear guidance even more essential.
It is understandable that managers and organisations prefer employees to be in their pre-pandemic workplace. Working from home has limitations and is not for everyone. It is more difficult for people to network and have incidental meetings with colleagues, which are so important. Working from home can be isolating, and blur the work/family boundaries. The overwhelming research emerging, however, shows that many employees want to work hybridly and the organisations are assessing their policies and their physical workspaces to determine how this can happen.
Other public sector jurisdictions are recognising the benefits of working from home and hybrid working. The Victorian government has introduced a new flexible by default policy. The starting position is that all roles can incorporate some form of flexibility and the policy enables employees to work hybridly. The ACT government is also reportedly supportive of employees continuing to work from home. The Queensland government has reviewed the working from home experiment in the Queensland public sector, and concluded that flexibility ‘is a key enabler of productivity’.
New times are upon us and new ways of working are emerging. As we argued a few months ago, the public sector has an opportunity to lead the way with flexible working arrangements. It is an opportunity that must not be lost.