APS commissioner says flexible working here to stay balanced with need to return to normal

By Jackson Graham

November 29, 2021

Peter Woolcott
Peter Woolcott. (The Mandarin)

Australian Public Service commissioner Peter Woolcott says flexibility will continue to be “part of the way we work in the future” but there’s a strong sense “we need to return to normal”. 

Speaking at a Mandarin Talks following the launch of the APSC’s state of the service report on Monday, Woolcott said COVID-19 had accelerated an agenda for workforce reform already recommended by the 2019 Thodey review

The review made 40 recommendations including for a more dynamic and flexible APS. 

“What was shown during COVID is that we were able to work flexibly and remotely at scale. Technology stood up, the system stood up and that was a huge tribute to the public service,” Woolcott said. 

“We suddenly realised that, in fact, the way had to handle COVID, very much through agility, through working together, those were in fact the things the Thodey review wanted to drive. 

“We actually put the foot down on the reform agenda.”

Public service minister Ben Morton has said in recent days that if public servants can’t outline their productivity gains from working from home, then they should return to offices. 

In comments interpreted as ‘spooking’ public servants, he urged APS workers to start gathering evidence if they want to continue working flexibly. 

Woolcott said he interpreted the comments as Morton wanting to “normalise work [and] normalise society” as a future without lockdowns begins. 

“But at no stage has he said we should give up the way we have done things in the past around flexible work, around the business case for it,” Woolcott said.

“His case is that COVID is no longer a reason for people to work in a way they didn’t work two years ago.” 

While discussing the state of the service findings, Woolcott said working from home would remain part of the way the public service operated into the future, and workforces were unlikely to revert back to pre-pandemic ways. 

“So much has now happened in changing the culture and the way we think about work; particularly at the leadership level. I would be surprised if we slide back to old habits,” he said. 

But he stressed it was appropriate that individual agencies were given autonomy to get the amount of flexibility in their workforces right. 

“If you’re working at the productivity commission you can establish your workforce in a certain way,” Woolcott said, in a nod to the agency finding gains from working remotely

“But if you’re working for one of the intelligence agencies or you’re at Centrelink or Services Australia — where you’re having to deal with customers all the time, and intelligence agencies obviously working with sophisticated equipment — you can’t,” he said. 

“We are such a disparate set of agencies that can’t set one rule that counts across all agencies.”

The state of the service report outlines about 46% of public servants were working on a blended model from home in the past 12 months and Woolcott flagged there was also “a strong sense that going forward we need to return to normal”. 

“Flexibility has always been part of how we work. But in terms of trying to recreate a normal environment for the way we live our lives and do our work, heading back to the office is seen as an important part of that process,” he said. 

“[But] we have always had business cases around flexibility, and I do think flexibility is going to be a very important part of the way we work in the future.”


Does working from home increase or decrease productivity?

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