21 October 2022

Public servants don't like going into the office - unless they really have to

| Lottie Twyford
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Public service.

The Territory’s public servants have wholeheartedly embraced the era of flexible working. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

New research shows the ACT’s public servants don’t want to be forced to work at the office unless there’s a reason for it, as they wholeheartedly embrace the era of flexible working.

It follows Chief Minister Andrew Barr arguing earlier this year public servants were not going to be forced to return to the office as “consumer fodder”.

Mr Barr had last year declared the era of 9-5, five days a week working in the office for the ACTPS was over.

The Canberra Liberals had pressed the case for a return to the office to support CBD businesses like cafes, laundromats and newsagents.

Now, public servants say they are overwhelmingly supportive of flexible working arrangements but continue to hold some concerns about being expected to work when unwell or be available all day.


Graph showing the percentage of the workforce accessing the building at least once per week by directorate. Photo: Screenshot.

According to a report prepared by the Australian New Zealand School of Government, the ACT Public Service and UNSW Canberra, office attendance varied by directorate.

Public servants were surveyed from December 2021 and June 2022.

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Survey participants were strongly resistant to mandatory office attendance as they did not believe it to be operationally necessary.

“I’m … a bit resistant to arbitrary days … If I’m just sitting behind a computer and a lot of my work is computer based, it makes no sense for me to be in an office nine to five … I just don’t see the logic anymore,” one public servant was reported as saying.

Mandatory office attendance was typically determined at a directorate level.

When they did attend the office, public servants had “strong negative perceptions” about hot-desking.

These typically related to noise levels and privacy and being restricted to working in areas with desks clustered to create a joint working space.

Some concerns about working from home arrangements were recorded although the majority were satisfied with work start and finish times as well as being able to take breaks around personal demands.

Researchers found working from home was conducive to productivity but it meant work was more likely to spill over into private time.

The latter could be due to both poor boundaries around work and unrealistic expectations about staff availability.

“For example, in many teams, there is an expectation that individuals will communicate their availability throughout the day, such as being absent for a brief personal commitment,” the report found.

One public servant said they felt as though they could not let their computer go to sleep while reading something as a high level of responsiveness was expected.

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Employees under 30 and over 50 did report that they preferred to work from the office, to avoid feelings of social isolation.

Computer data showed workers were likely to be digitally active for an extra hour a day (7.6 hours), compared to 2019 (6.3 hours).

But researchers said this could be reflective of changes in scheduling and types of computer usage as well as actual increases in the number of hours worked per day.

The report’s authors noted more work was necessary to understand flexible working across the entirety of the ACT public service, including looking at frontline service delivery workers such as teachers and nurses.

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HiddenDragon7:53 pm 23 Oct 22

In a classic statement of the bleeding obvious, the Productivity Commission concluded (for the time being) –

“On balance, working from home can unlock significant gains in terms of flexibility and time for employees and could even increase the nation’s productivity. Risks can be managed but we should keep an eye on them and be ready to intervene if necessary.”

The benefits for employees are all very well, but long-suffering ACT taxpayers (including many whose incomes are earned without the luxury of working from home) might be sceptical about the productivity trade-off when this major change in ACT PS work practices looks more like a Chief Minister pandering to a key voting demographic than it does like a productivity initiative to benefit the broader community.

If/when someone comes up with a more rigorous (than responses to employee surveys) methodology for measuring productivity changes for the types of public sector work which are eligible for home-based/hybrid work, taxpayers will be able to have more confidence that there are mutual benefits to this trend.

The problem of working from home is that employees will slacken off without supervision. There are many distractions at home that don’t exist in an office. Essential interraction will decline, ideas will stagnate, productivity will fall. You know it – working from home is a rort, benefiting only the lazy and unmotivated, resulting in siloed inefficiency.

Tom Worthington8:50 am 23 Oct 22

The ACT and Federal public services may need to make their work practices more flexible to compete for staff, who are being jobs with employers around the world, and no requirement to move. Yesterday one of the online job platforms sent me a list of openings: four were in Canberra (three APS jobs, one contractor), one in Perth, and one in China. The four Canberra jobs were labelled “On-site”, the Perth and China ones “Remote”. In other words, while the APS makes staff, and contractors, move to Canberra, these other employers allow you to work from anywhere. For example: “This role can be based anywhere in Western Australia, the Asia Pacific region, UK or Europe! Just let us know where you are when you apply.”. Of course, also, government agencies will need to be mindful of staff applying for jobs in China.

Clever Interrobang8:41 am 23 Oct 22

Without any form of permanent desk at the office (aka hot-desking), it’s better to work in a comfortable space at home which doesn’t change.

Many modern offices (like mine) no longer have partitions or cubicles or a permanent space, just leaves a feeling of being watched and exposed, which is doubly annoying if your job involves calling customers on the phone from time to time and there’s nothing to insulate the sound which just rings out across the floor.

Public service workplaces are often unsuited to the type of work done. Open plan offices and hot desking may save money in the short term, but there’s masses of research showing they reduce productivity, the ability to concentrate and pay attention to doing work well. Long or complex commutes with poor public transport or tasks to be done along the way, can make staff less fresh and energetic when they start work.

Theory X managers need to see their staff working to believe that they are doing so. They micromanage their staff because they don’t trust them. They seek evidence of presence and activity which retards staff ability to do complex work, because they’re constantly interrupted and often unable to continue a train of thought to its end point. All too often it is this type of manager who reduces productivity, so their staff will actually perform much better from home than at the office.

Conscientious people work more effectively when left to work in their own way, as do many specific personality types including some of those who are neurodivergent. Good managers set clear objectives for outcomes, trusting well-trained competent staff to do the job well, which they do unless objectives are unclear or skills are lacking. When achievable outcomes are not met, a manager should ask about the barriers to identify the area that needs addressing, often with further training or resources. When outcomes are within the control of the worker, they are the best measure of performance, so rewarding outcomes enhances productivity much more than appearing at work, as presenteeism demonstrates.

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