Study finds APS should stick with working from home opportunities

Ian Bushnell 25 August 2020 28
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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28 Responses to Study finds APS should stick with working from home opportunities
Ol L Ol L 3:29 pm 28 Aug 20

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

Rob Rob 11:29 am 28 Aug 20

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.

Peter Norton Peter Norton 5:45 pm 26 Aug 20

There are countless examples of ongoing delays to service delivery (eg getting a car registered, getting an MRI, loan application processing, etc). WFH is a disaster for customer service.

Betsy Michelle Betsy Michelle 1:39 pm 26 Aug 20

Agree 100% working from home is the best

Marjeta Marks Marjeta Marks 8:25 am 26 Aug 20

Unless you are a front line worker and face to face is essential there is no reason to be packed in an office environment sharing confined spaces like lifts or general spaces like meeting room, kitchens or loos etc..

No one ever caught a virus over the phone or through a monitor screen.

John Flannery John Flannery 7:31 am 26 Aug 20

With all that increased productivity the APS should be able to be halved with no adverse effects. Noice.

    Justin Watson Justin Watson 11:03 am 26 Aug 20

    Yes because creating unemployment is great!?!?! Maybe some cut programs can get reinstated instead, keep jobs get more and better services. I say this as someone who isn't a public servant.

    John Flannery John Flannery 11:20 am 26 Aug 20

    No you’re right the government should just employ everyone.

    Hayley Daisy Hayley Daisy 10:58 am 28 Aug 20

    You know it's not all APS. The survey was CPSU members who are less than productive when attending the office. There is your efficiency dividend.

Dot Willcoxson Dot Willcoxson 5:17 am 26 Aug 20

Some departments are requiring their staff to return to the office.

Jenine Anne Jenine Anne 1:52 am 26 Aug 20

Today we had a bunch (6) of tradies finally coming to fix our roof after the hail storm in January (not their fault it took so long). They were very happy that we were able to be flexible because we are working from home. They had planned to come another day but rang up at the last minute to see if they could do it today instead.

jason358 jason358 12:20 am 26 Aug 20

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.

Rob Thomas Rob Thomas 11:28 pm 25 Aug 20

Yes but if you're not being constantly monitored by your manager what will she have left to do?

John Elliott John Elliott 10:16 pm 25 Aug 20

The people I have talked to about working from home are not very happy about it now. The novelty has worn off, that horrible boss is not do bad after all.

Kristi Dynes Jørgensen Kristi Dynes Jørgensen 10:13 pm 25 Aug 20

This is an interesting article, not unexpected given the position forced through covid. It’s a shame the trust in workers had to be forced - I have long believed it’s been a big barrier to flexibility for government workers in Aus.

But also - it’s not one size fits all. “Opportunities” and flexibility are the right way to phrase it because it isn’t one size fits all for how individuals work best nor the mental health issues associated with the physical disconnect from the workplace and colleagues.

Jeffrey Brown Jeffrey Brown 10:01 pm 25 Aug 20

It's true! When I was working for a company in Canberra, it was quicker to wake up, walk a meter to my desk and pound away at my work.... I did it while I was sick, while I was on bereavement leave, and while my wife was pregnant. I did this years before this pandemic. It is a no brainer

Monty Ki Monty Ki 10:01 pm 25 Aug 20

You can be yourself working from home. No face to face awkward social interactions, less energy "masking" for the benefit of fitting into the workplace culture, more energy and focus because your not constantly interrupted by a workmate wanting to talk about what they watched on tv last night, more time because you don't have to commute, healthier eating because you have an entire kitchen, no bad smells from other people's lunches, wear what you like most of the time, less pressure because people aren't breathing over you or watching you, etc. and less chance of catching the common cold because someone decided to take Codral and "soldier on" in the workplace. The biggest issue is ergonomics, but that can easily be sorted.

Working from home is so good for us all.

Janet Ilchef Janet Ilchef 9:54 pm 25 Aug 20

One issue is injuries from working at home at desks etc that are not ergonomically sound

Guy Filmer Guy Filmer 9:50 pm 25 Aug 20

Lazy & entitled. "That's all."

Jason Malcolm Jason Malcolm 9:49 pm 25 Aug 20

Agreed! And lived healthier too, less temptation to eat unhealthy...from office junk food such as chocolates or baked goods, to fatty lunches. Working from home stopped the extra eating and numerous hot drinks for me.

Tom Adam Tom Adam 9:41 pm 25 Aug 20

Years ago I worked in the APS and a few times, when the technology was already available, I asked to work from home on certain projects so I’d have less distractions (and useless time wasting meetings) to deliver an outcome.

No, no, no is what I got.

I hope some of those small minded managers have changed their minds about this now and moved on.

Caroline Reid Caroline Reid 9:35 pm 25 Aug 20

As over 55 Fair Work Act says we can request alternative work arrangements.

jetabe007 jetabe007 4:32 pm 25 Aug 20

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.

    Proboscus Proboscus 7:45 am 26 Aug 20

    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.

    jetabe007 jetabe007 2:59 pm 26 Aug 20

    ridiculous indeed!

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