Resistance to working from home will likely continue in the public service despite changes forced onto the bureaucracy during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to researchers.
A new research paper last week said public sectors had shown reluctance to let staff work from home since the coronavirus took hold in Australia.
The resistance put into doubt whether working from home would become a "new normal" for the federal public service following the pandemic, researchers said in the Australian Journal of Public Administration.
Public administration researchers Sue Williamson, Linda Colley and Sally Hanna-Osborne said the pandemic swept away technical barriers to working from home, leaving institutional cultures and managerial attitudes as the main obstacles.
"A great deal of excitement is being generated that the pandemic is fundamentally changing how we live and work, with predictions that working from home will become 'the new normal'," they wrote.
"Based on past practice, however, we question the extent to which large numbers of public sector employees will continue to work from home."
Because the pandemic had imposed changes from outside the public service, it may not deliver long-term changes in working arrangements, the research paper said.
Tens of thousands of federal public servants have worked from home as Commonwealth employers attempt to prevent COVID-19 spreading through workplaces.
The researchers said the federal public service had been slower among the nation's government employers to adopt working from home on a large scale during the pandemic.
The timing and messaging of the Australian Public Service Commission's advice to agencies in May about bringing staff back to office buildings also indicated resistance to working from home, they said.
While the APS was one of the last among the nation's public sectors to adopt large-scale working from home, it was one of the first to tell employers to prepare for a return to office buildings.
"Although decisions were to be made at agency level and subject to health and safety considerations, the clear intent was that APS employees should begin to return to their regular place of work," the researcher paper said.
State and territory public sectors may be more likely to keep letting employees work from home after the pandemic, the paper said.
Dr Colley said in an interview that the research focused on central policies and organisations, and used the timing and content of public sector workplace policies as an indicator of resistance to working from home.
The APS's policies were less generous than those in state and territory public sectors.
However Dr Colley said as labour market conditions improved, public service organisations may come under pressure to allow more working from home as they competed with private sector employers for staff.
An APS commission spokesperson said working from home was not new and the public service had long supported flexible working arrangements.
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The commission's annual report on the APS in November would detail lessons learnt through the COVID-19 pandemic response, including in relation to remote working at scale.
APS commission advice to the public service on remote working was regularly updated to reflect decisions and advice from the national cabinet, the spokesperson said. Then-chief medical officer Brendan Murphy's advice on March 27 that Australians should be "working from home where possible" was communicated immediately to bureaucracy chief operating officers, the commission said.
In a survey on August 17, agencies on average reported that 62 per cent of staff were working from home.
"This figure is an overestimate of the number of APS staff working from home on an ongoing basis, as some agencies have staff on fortnightly rosters to meet social distancing requirements," the commission spokesperson said.
A survey of public servants by University of NSW and Central Queensland University researchers in July, focusing on employee attitudes, found most bureaucrats had found advantages to working from home.
Public service bosses told the survey they would be more supportive of having staff work from home in the future.
More than one third of managers said their staff had been more productive while working from home, and 90 per cent said productivity had improved or remained the same.
The survey appeared to show a change in attitudes towards working from home, compared to previous research finding widespread resistance among managers concerned about technology, compliance with employment regulation, and employees' productivity and performance.