Public servants still working from home have been told to prepare to head back to the office, but some have labelled the directive inflexible and regressive.
The Public Service Commission on Tuesday published a circular directing agency heads to start making arrangements for all employees to return to the office as COVID-19 cases were stabilising.
It said employers should prioritise continuing to deliver critical functions of the public service and ensuring a safe transition back to the workplace.
Considering the number of COVID-19 cases in most communities is small, it said even employees at greater risk of severe illness should return to the office if a risk assessment was completed.
However, UNSW Canberra senior lecturer in human resource management, Sue Williamson, said the directive represented a missed opportunity to learn from the benefits of flexible work arrangements found during the pandemic.
"It's not a very flexible approach to working from home," Dr Williamson said.
"It doesn't leave much room for agency discretion."
Dr Williamson and Associate Professor Linda Colley from CQUniversity recently conducted a survey of 6000 APS employees and managers.
The survey showed that public servants overwhelmingly wanted the opportunity to work some days from the office and some from home, and managers supported this, Dr Williamson said.
While staff missed incidental conversations and felt they received better professional development in the office, they reported being more productive at home and were also happier with a better work-life balance.
Employees said they felt their own productivity had increased and could complete more complex work due to a greater ability to concentrate at home. Managers reported their teams had become more productive from home, according to Dr Williamson.
She said COVID-19 had seemingly wiped away resistance to working from home for middle-level APS management.
"But senior managers and the APS culture is still resistant to working from home," she said.
CPSU assistant national secretary Michael Tull said the union would continue to work with agencies and departments to ensure a transition back to the workplace was done safely and that new working from home arrangements were available.
"We have seen the public sector deliver for the community in an extraordinary situation, it has shown that working from home more than works," Mr Tull said.
"Plans need to take into account the difficulties that public transport and lifts in large public service buildings present to social distancing.
"The Commonwealth has an obligation to set an example for all employers about best practice for returning to work, it is critical that this is done properly to avoid a third wave of infections."
Labor public service spokeswoman Katy Gallagher said employee safety was paramount in considering any returns to the workplace.
"Any plan to return to office-based working must be based on the latest health advice relevant to the location of workplaces across the country. A one-size-fits-all approach won't work," Senator Gallagher said.
The APSC circular noted that advice could not be applied uniformly nationally due to the different circumstances in APS office locations.
It also encouraged workplaces to have a plan to deal with any localised outbreaks of the virus.