The public service started a mass experiment when it sent thousands of staff to work in the safety of their homes in March and April.
Even by the standards of the COVID-19 pandemic, this was something genuinely different for the bureaucracy. By late April, 57 per cent of federal bureaucrats had started working from home to help stop the coronavirus spreading. The number has fluctuated with the course of the virus. On August 11, a survey of Australian Public Service agencies found 64 per cent of public servants were working from home.
Because this story is new and still unfolding, there's not much in the way of studies or even publicly-reported anecdotes that signals with certainty how it's all going.
Into this void has arrived a flurry of claims and commentary, some of it serving interests separate to the public service's.
The time public servants spend working from home has become a target of lobby groups, and seemingly, someone inside the federal government.
Pressure to move bureaucrats back into office buildings began in earnest last month when ACT industry peak bodies banded together in calling on public servants to return to offices and support the small businesses they once frequented.
Next, someone inside the government called for scrutiny on working from home.
Not enough is known about working from home to mount informed debates about its benefits and drawbacks for the tasks of government.
With the provocative front page headline "Pyjama-led policy a drag on public sector productivity", Newscorp newspaper The Australian said unnamed senior officials feared working from home was hurting staff productivity, wasting expensive office space, preventing mentoring for junior staff and risking sub-par advice.
An unnamed senior government figure was quoted as saying: "It's fine to ask people about how productive they feel about working from home. But we need to measure with rigour the outcomes, delivery and true cost to taxpayers if we are to come out of the pandemic in better shape".
The senior government figure's quote appeared to refer to a University of NSW and Central Queensland University survey, conducted in July in partnership with the Community and Public Sector Union. The full report doesn't come out until September but results released last month suggested both staff and their bosses were positive about working from home. Public servants reported it had made them more productive. Maybe more telling, 90 per cent of managers said their staff's productivity had improved or remained the same, and almost two-thirds said they would be more supportive of employees working from home in the future.
More surveys are already under way inside agencies. The APS Commission says the findings, as well as case studies and interviews conducted with chief operating officers, will feed into its annual report on the public service to be published in November.
Having learnt on the fly how to operate with thousands of staff at home, the APS in the next few months will assess how it all went, what should stay and what should go.
Until then, not enough is known about working from home to mount informed debates about its benefits and drawbacks for the tasks of government. The argument is currently political in nature, and open to the unhelpful contest of claim and counterclaim.
We know at least that the UNSW/CQ University study suggests a rapid change in attitudes towards working from home inside Commonwealth workplaces. No matter the politics outside the public service about working from home, it may have gained some important supporters inside the bureaucracy.