30 November 2021

New flexible working guidelines in mix as APS faces competing pressures

| Ian Bushnell
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Working from home

Working from home has been a success during the pandemic, but the future of flexible working is still taking shape. Photo: File.

New guidelines on flexible working in the Australian Public Service are close to being ready as agencies face government pressures to bring people back into the office and normalise operations while also managing staff expectations after successfully navigating lockdowns with working from home arrangements.

The 2021 State of the Service report from the Australian Public Service Commission shows that 46 per cent of staff continue to work from home, while 53 per cent of respondents to the APS Employee Census said they worked away from the office at least part of the time in 2020, up from 22 per cent in 2019.

Public Service Minister Ben Morton made it clear recently that the government expected staff to return to the office now that they could, despite the Productivity Commission saying employers should not argue against working from home and that it will be a key feature of future workforces.

The State of the Service report says the office will remain a central workplace but acknowledges that expectations have shifted and agencies are reviewing how they will conduct flexible working into the future.

Agencies are also facing an extremely competitive recruitment market in which flexible working will be an important carrot for them to dangle. Many are also unable to fill positions from Canberra, particularly IT roles, and are having to hire people from interstate who can work remotely.

APSC officials say the Chief Operating Officers Committee has been looking at flexible working and will soon release a set of common guiding principles for agencies to assist them.

They will include arrangements to suit both employer and employee, productivity commitments and pastoral care, so junior staff are not left working at home away from training and mentoring, for example.

The principles acknowledge the diverse nature of public service work so there will not be a one-size-fits-all approach. Officials say it would be too difficult to have a set of rules that covers everybody in every circumstance.

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The APSC says Mr Morton accepts the role of flexible working but government concerns remain around productivity, local economies and the quality of advice when fewer people are physically in the office to discuss issues.

There is a lot of experimentation going on in the private sector and public services overseas and it does not want to rush what will be a big piece of work on what the future of flexible work and working from home will be. But it would appear the APS is preparing for a future combining the office, working from home, regional or suburban hubs and a hybrid mix, exemplified by the refit of the Sirius Building in Woden which will house Health’s consolidated operations.

The APSC acknowledges some of the workforce issues arising from working from home, such as blurring the line between the workplace and home, but is not working on rules to prevent overwork or manager expectations for staff to always be available.

It says the focus will be on retraining supervisors, through the new APS Academy, for example, to manage staff remotely, which many have never had to do before.

At present, arrangements for allowing flexible work remains in the hands of agency heads.

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