26 April 2023

Public servants think they work better at home, survey reveals

| Chris Johnson
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Working from home

Working from home works, public servants say. Photo: File.

Australian Public Service employees believe they are more productive working from home than at the office – and the pandemic experience has proven the point.

Research undertaken at the height of COVID-19 restrictions, when APS management and staff were made to work at home, shows most were not only comfortable with the arrangements but felt they functioned at a better level.

A self-reporting survey of 6000 public sector employees reveals staff now want greater flexibility over where they work as a matter of course.

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The Working During the Pandemic: From resistance to revolution study was undertaken by the University of NSW Canberra’s Public Service Research Group and CQUniversity with support from the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU).

Its findings are being highlighted again this week as the CPSU negotiates with the government over flexible working arrangements.

UNSW Canberra’s lead researcher Associate Professor Sue Williamson co-authored the report which found public sector workforces buoyed by the output achieved by the working-from-home experience.

“While the focus in recent decades has been on flexibility of hours, our findings suggest flexibility of location of work is at least as important,” the authors stated.

“Greater flexibility in the place of work reduces the need for flexibilities such as reduced hours through part-time work and seemed to be a key piece in the puzzle of reconciling work and caring responsibilities.

“Second, the findings suggest a major shift in the mindset of managers, from previous resistance or scepticism about the benefits of working from home to a new understanding of the potential productivity and other benefits.”

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The findings also identified improved management receptiveness towards working from home in the future.

But the report notes policy may be lagging behind practice, with room for a better understanding of the impacts of such flexible arrangements and more innovative thinking around how they can be supported.

“There are some remaining hurdles to overcome,” the authors stated.

“Findings suggest some employees are a little surer of manager support for working from home in the future, but are lukewarm about whether they will get organisational support.

“ICT also remains a challenge. Finally, there are also some areas where the working-from-home experience could be improved post-pandemic.

“Many employees reported working longer hours than pre-pandemic, and there is scope for employers to address health and wellbeing aspects.

“There is also scope to focus on relationships and professional networks, with some employees reporting decreased ability to undertake some of the less tangible, relational aspects of work.”

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About 65 per cent of survey respondents were women; 23 per cent (almost 1400) were managers at Executive Level and Senior Executive Service levels. The survey also included responses from about 20 per cent of non-union members.

The CPSU has emphasised that it sees this week’s negotiations on flexible work, as part of APS service-wide bargaining, as a crucial first test of the Federal Government’s commitment to becoming a model employer.

“This is an opportunity for the government to demonstrate that it is ready to build a modern, diverse, and inclusive APS,” national secretary Melissa Donnelly said.

“It is no secret the APS is facing an attraction and retention crisis, and current APS employees are bearing the brunt of that with burnout, turnover and workloads all sitting higher than they should be.

“But fully embracing flexible work and opening the doors of APS employment to new parts of the population could be a game-changer.

“Creating an APS workforce that is more reflective of the public it is there to serve has the potential to be transformative for the services it delivers.

“The APS has everything to gain and nothing to lose in negotiations on flexible work and working from home.”

The study’s authors stated the key message from the survey was that working from home was an “overwhelmingly positive experience” for managers and employees in the APS, with more than 90 per cent of managers reporting their team’s productivity was at the same or higher levels.

“The 2020 pandemic compelled people to work from home, transforming the world of work,” the authors stated.

“We considered it essential to understand how this form of working was undertaken on a large scale.”

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Good managers judge worth by actual output, not attendence. Place I used to work had people intently looking at their screens, but then you’d go hang with the IT guys who were monitoring web use and who were joking about it being “let’s all look at shoes day”.

Open plan offices are hellish places, and requiring people to attend a noisy office while covid is still rampant is insane.

I’ve been scribing for the past too-many years, but so many recruitment panels now insist that we attend in person, so that makes it easy to hang up the pencil and retire.

Steps to working from home:
1. Run a video in a loop to keep the appearance of your account being active
2. Only watch Netflix for three hours between 8:00AM and 4:00PM

I know someone who loves working from home due to anxiety. So now they never go out at all. They simply exist in their parents spare room. They are also now morbidly obese. It’s a shame

Avoidance of all things you fear creates a dysfunctional life that is not healthy. It is necessary to confront the fear to learn how to manage and overcome it. However, this person will need to decide to do that themselves, as forcing them is problematic and risky from a whole variety of perspectives.

Of course they work better from home in much of their work, as they can concentrate and avoid interruptions there. Open plan workplaces have been proven to significantly reduce productivity, as noise, distractions and interruptions frequently disrupt focus on work. There is more than 25 years research on the drop to productivity caused by open plan workplaces, yet it’s largely been ignored because of the cost of office space and fit-outs.

Where intense focus is needed to master complex tasks and consider strategies to resolve complicated issues, an open plan workplace can prevent any progress at all. People were more effective at work when they could socialise when they needed a break and close their doors when they needed to concentrate. So, if you want high productivity, ensure people can work in peace whether at home or in the office.

Whilst there’s a time saving in commuting if working from home, it is usually necessary for some time together for collaborative activity, as well as for social connection.

Some people do not work effectively in isolation from others, others do and even more need a mix of time to focus and time to socialise. A smart manager, finds out what works best for each of their staff members in their particular roles by talking with them before facilitating the right conditions for the team, without thinking that all must be treated the same. People are not the same, so it’s smarter to focus on their needs and the resulting output.

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