Canberra’s public servants may have been told to go back to the office but the generally positive working-from-home experience during the COVID-19 crisis means it will now be even more of an option for APS staff.
The latest State of the Service report confirms that while working from home did not suit everyone it is now accepted as an important tool in managing a flexible APS workforce.
”As COVID-19 continues to circulate in the community, employees, managers and agencies will need a flexible approach to home-based work that is responsive to a changing external environment,” it says.
”The APS must continue to explore the benefits of remote working, and of shared workspaces, and the skills, behaviours and ways of working that support a productive APS.”
APS Commissioner Peter Woolcott said the pandemic response had changed the nature of flexible work.
”Previously, flexible arrangements were most often used by women working part-time or accessing flexible hours,” he said.
”Throughout the pandemic, flexibility has become synonymous with the health and safety of our workforce, and business continuity of Government. Whether working remotely, over split shifts or rotating teams through the office, flexible work was widely embraced as a necessary measure to ensure employees could remain productive and focused on critical service delivery.”
He said at the peak of national COVID-19 restrictions, more than half of APS employees worked from home and one-in-five agencies reported moving their entire workforce out of the office for a period of time.
The report says that Australians’ work expectations have now changed and for the APS to remain an employer of choice and attract talent it will need to retain this flexibility.
”In one survey of Australians, 82 per cent of respondents indicated that COVID-19 has changed how they want to work, and 97 per cent of respondents wanted to retain the freedom to work flexibly when COVID-19 restrictions are over,” it says.
It also says working from home also offered opportunities for the APS to broaden its skill base and catchment.
”Remote work offers the potential for the APS to access wider labour markets and in-demand skills, reducing geographic barriers to some APS roles,” it says.
The report says the COVID-19 experience allowed the APS to learn key lessons about what made working from home successful or not.
Access to the right digital tools such as videoconferencing technology were critical during crisis, and staff need to be properly resourced and trained to use them to be productive, it says.
The report also says leaders and teams must trust each other to get the best outcomes. Some managers reported that they found the remote experience challenging and would benefit from more training.
”The APS requires skilled managers with the mindset, tools and ability to manage dispersed teams pro-actively, employ outcome-based management, and foster open and accountable ways of working,” it says.
The report also says team members must continue talking to each other and maintain connection with other work areas wherever their location, or risk losing touch.
It acknowledges that working from home may not suit everyone or every task, and says flexibility requires an individual and evidence-based approach.
It was not an either/or situation and would often mean a hybrid approach.
Two case studies of productivity improvement and decline showed that the outcome often depended on the type of work, staff experience of working remotely, technology required, and the amount of interaction required with colleagues.
”With the right support and systems in place, flexibility can support organisational performance through higher engagement, and offer improved work/life balance to individuals,” the report says.