25 August 2020

Study finds APS should stick with working from home opportunities

| Ian Bushnell
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Working from home

The study has shown that workers can be just as productive, if not more, working from home. Photo: File.

The nature of work may never be the same, according to a new study that has debunked long-held beliefs about working from home.

The rise of computer technology and the internet has long offered the opportunity to revolutionise how and where people work, but organisations and managers have clung to the mindset that staff could not be left unsupervised as productivity would suffer.

But what UNSW Canberra academic Dr Sue Williamson calls the ”fantastic natural experiment” of the pandemic, forcing people to isolate, has offered the perfect opportunity to discover the benefits of working from home.

She said the study’s results have overturned previously held views and opened up new possibilities for flexible working arrangements in the public and private sectors.

“The current COVID-19 pandemic forced the majority of organisations to remote working, including agencies from the Australian Public Service. This was a major change for these Departments, many of which did not have a strong working from home culture, so it is encouraging that there now seems to be this shift in attitude,” she said.

UNSW Canberra and CQUniversity worked with the Community and Public Sector Union to survey 6000 APS members on their experiences working from home.

It showed that almost two-thirds of managers now say that they’ll be more supportive of employees working from home in the future.

Dr Williamson said managers found their teams were just as productive, if not more productive, and most employees said they were productive, even with disruptions such as homeschooling and caring responsibilities, and want to keep working from home.

Many workers also enjoyed not having to waste time commuting to work, even in Canberra where journeys are relatively short, and spending more time with their families.

Dr Williamson said they were working harder, were more focused, and managers were seeing the results and resistance had dropped right off.

Even workers such as Tax Office call centre staff were still able to do their jobs from home.

Dr Williamson said the implications were far-reaching and working from home could become a more usual way of working.

”Both in the private and public sectors, working from home will become more normalised and there will be flow-on effects for flexible working hours,” she said.

Already during the pandemic, offices were staggering start and finish times to avoid peak hour congestion.

As restrictions ease depending on the current state of the pandemic across the country, some agencies have begun to bring back employees into the office.

“Employees want to continue to work from home. Some managers and organisations are still stuck in a pre-pandemic mindset, however, and are reluctant to let them do so. We encourage organisations to continue embracing this form of flexible working,” Dr Williamson said.

Technology, particularly Zoom and other virtual-meeting programs, proved a great enabler, but some workers were concerned about the cost of providing their own equipment, although some agencies did provide laptops and ergonomic chairs.

Some workers did say that they prefer to be in an office setting and having face-to-face conversations.

The key findings were:

  • More than four out of five employees said working from home gave them more time with their family.
  • Almost two-thirds of respondents said it enabled them to get more work done than when they were at their usual place of work.
  • Three-in-five employees said that working from home enabled them to have more autonomy over their work.
  • Over a third of managers stated that their team was more productive when they worked from home.
  • Over a quarter of respondents stated that they worked longer hours during the pandemic.

CPSU National Secretary Mellissa Donnelly said that the pandemic had showed the public sector had been very effective working from home, and she hoped the research would inform future policy in a post-pandemic world.

“Working from home works. The success of the last few months shows that the APS should trust its workers. In fact, this research shows that people can be more productive and management welcomes it,” she said

The full report, Working during the Pandemic: From Resistance to Revolution, will be available in September.

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Some simple observations on the survey.
“More than four out of five employees said working from home gave them more time with their family.” Obvious answer is there is no commuting time.
“Over a third of managers stated that their team was more productive when they worked from home.” What about the obverse of less than two thirds of managers stated their teams were less productive?
“Over a quarter of respondents stated that they worked longer hours during the pandemic.” Again the obverse nearly ¾ of public servants worked less hours.

Haha when I worked from home I would write a whole lot of nothing emails in quick succession. Then I would ‘drip feed’ these emails throughout the day to management. They thought I was a great worker lol
I did this for years

I am surprised that an academic would be associated with this study and that this publication would record it: it is a survey of union members with inherent views on labour practices. It is not a random survey of APS staff. It is a tainted and entirely unreliable sample.

Kind of sort of true but less true as time goes by. I am now seeing serious strategic drift and things going around in circles more than usual in larger APS organisations because people aren’t communicating well and making decisions efficiently.

It took a pandemic but now that we are there we should allow this to be the normal over the abnormal work from office.
With climate emergency right around the corner this is the bare minimum we can do.

What, there’s a climate emergency? When did this happen? Or when will it happen? Do you have a date? Should we cancel Christmas?

Do I sound ridiculous? Well so does bringing climate change into a working from home discussion.

ridiculous indeed!

So does common sense.

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