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.
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.”
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.”
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.”