The hybrid work model in the public sector is here to stay, but it will evolve even more to include satellite hubs as agencies continue to adapt to the changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study, ‘The Future of Work’.
Out today (Monday, 11 October), the review of literature by the Public Service Research Group at the University of NSW Canberra was commissioned by two of the Australian Public Service’s biggest agencies: the Department of Home Affairs and the Australian Taxation Office.
As the end of COVID-19 lockdown and restrictions approach, public sector agencies are grappling with how and where staff will work, how they will be managed, and what their expectations are.
Co-author Associate Professor Sue Williamson said the pandemic has only accelerated a trend to activity-based working and remote working that was emerging before COVID-19 forced staff to work from home.
She said resistance to working from home had evaporated in the face of evidence of its success, and now the question is more about navigating this new era of flexibility.
“Organisations are thinking more about which tasks can be performed collaboratively online, which jobs can be done virtually at home, and which can’t,” said Associate Professor Williamson.
“Organisations are starting to think a bit more strategically about this.”
Associate Professor Williamson said they would also be looking at which employees are suited to, or prefer, remote or in-person work, with younger staff more likely to want to be in an office setting as opposed to, for example, parents needing flexibility.
“There will be differential impacts on different groups of employees,” she said.
Associate Professor Williamson said there is also a shift to outcomes-based performance.
“Pre-pandemic, they would like to see employees in the office with bums on seats, but now it’s what can you produce,” she said.
“That’s a really positive move because it goes to what outcomes people are producing rather than just presenteeism.”
While the hybrid model of in-office and at-home work is now part of the landscape, an emerging trend is decentralisation in which satellite hubs are established in the suburbs or regional towns.
Associate Professor Williamson said this offers the in-person collaboration and social interaction of the office, but means staff can operate closer to home with less of a commute.
It also offers the opportunity for staff to work within their community, and fosters economic activity there.
From a health and safety point of view, the hubs would be fitted out more ergonomically than most home office settings.
This doesn’t diminish the role of the central office, but adds to a menu of choices for staff and for agencies in how they deploy teams.
Associate Professor Williamson said some agencies can provide 80 per cent seating capacity due to a portion of staff working remotely on any given day, thus lowering overheads.
The new ACT Government offices in Canberra City and Dickson fall into this category, and last week’s ACT Budget also allocated funding for hubs to be set up in Belconnen Town Centre and Tuggeranong Town Centre.
The report also found that agencies will have to meet greater expectations from a more mobile staff around flexibility in a competitive jobs market, and that if they want to retain people they will have to meet those expectations.
Additionally, managers are asking for more guidance and better training for a workplace that will be less visible and more dispersed, but require an inclusive virtual environment and a different approach to managing employee performance.
Trust will be a vital element, and that is coming through really strongly in the research.
“Trust equals higher returns and better productivity,” said Associate Professor Williamson. “Trust has improved. Employees are reciprocating by being autonomous and putting in additional discretionary effort as well.”
The report also says the current industrial relations setting is no longer fit for purpose.
Issues that have arisen include ‘techno stress’ and ‘digital overwhelm’, something the Australian Council of Trade Unions has taken up with its Charter for Working at Home, which advocates the right to switch off to avoid overwork and burnout, and to maintain work-life balance.
Associate Professor Williamson said the future has arrived.
“Now organisations are thinking we don’t need to go back to the way we were doing things,” she said. “So how do we work together, how do we make teams cohesive, how do we still work flexibly and creatively in different working environments and locations.”
While there has been a burst of research during the past 18 months, the report found that more insight is still needed.
Despite the success of working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, the jury is still out on productivity, and more work needs to be done on the impact on organisations, workplace culture, career progression, knowledge sharing and how the teamwork developed during the pandemic can be maintained.