Public servants working from home is once again in the news. This time, at the end of September, the Australian Public Service Commission directed agencies to start bringing employees back to their usual place of work.
The Prime Minister has urged public servants to return to work in city centres to help businesses. It is understandable that the Australian government wants people to eat at cafes in their lunch hour to boost the economy. The ACT Property Council and the Canberra Business Council have also recently called for employees to return to work, as local city-based businesses are doing it tough.
The Australian government is not alone in calling for public sector agencies to recall workers into their regular workplaces. The South Australian government has also done so, as has the Queensland government. The advice from the SA and Australian governments is quite directive that employees are expected to return to their usual workplaces.
The Queensland government is, however, encouraging agencies to consider how remote working arrangements can be incorporated into ongoing and future working arrangements. This approach is sound, recognising that working away from the standard workplace can be beneficial for individuals and agencies.
Such an approach is also supported by our research. In June this year we surveyed over 6000 APS employees to find out more about how they worked from home during the pandemic. One of our most important findings is that two-thirds of employees want to continue to work from home for some days of the week. This aligns with two-thirds of managers indicating that they support continued working from home.
We found that the positives of working from home far outweighed the negatives. Over 90 per cent of managers told us their teams were just as productive, if not more productive, working from home than pre-COVID. Employees gained time from not commuting, and spent more time with their families.
Trying to go back to a traditional 9 to 5 day in the office may be like trying to put the genie back in the bottle.
Almost a quarter of respondents were people with disabilities, who emphasised that working from home enabled them to work more, and better manage their health. Research shows that employed people with disabilities are more likely to work from home, and many more could do so if given the opportunity. With an ageing population, it becomes even more imperative that working from home continues to be seen as a normal way of working.
Women respondents told us that they had increased their working hours while working from home. They were able to work more as they could better combine work, domestic and caring responsibilities. This is significant, and can potentially progress gender equality by reducing the gender pay gap, increasing women's superannuation balances, and helping them access development opportunities which are usually more available to full-time employees. The benefits of working from home may therefore extend well beyond the workplace, so to speak.
However, we did uncover some downsides. Almost a quarter of respondents said they were less able to contact or collaborate with colleaguesas needed, and over a fifth stated that they were less able to maintain professional networks and access developmental opportunities. Men, in particular, had less access to professional development and networking opportunities. Over a quarter of respondents worked additional hours, giving rise to workplace health and safety concerns.
Employee preferences together with managerial support for working from home indicate that profound changes are occurring. We are in a transitional period where old ways of working are coming up against ways of working adopted during the pandemic lockdown. Some public sectors are recognising this transitional stage, and are continuing their own experiments with flexible working. The Queensland and Victorian governments are reportedly trialling remote working using decentralised hubs. These trials are to be welcomed as the public sector finds its "COVID-normal".
Working from home is not only changing how and where we work, but also bringing changes to the concept and usage of flexible working arrangements. Banking of hours, time off in lieu of overtime, changing employment from full-time to part-time and flexible start and finish times are all widely available. Changing the location of work seems to have been less accepted by organisations.
Similarly, the majority of requests granted by employers under the provisions of the Fair Work Act 2009 related to working hours. A change to start and finish times was the most common request granted. Flexible working hours are obviously important to employees.
In 2019 around 15 per cent of APS-level employees worked from home for some part of the working week. Interestingly the usage was over twice as high amongst executive levels and senior managers. By August 2020, this figure had risen to around 64 per cent. While the pandemic has forced employees to work from home, the majority of our respondents would like to continue working from home for some part of the week.
As we move into "COVID-normal", we'd do well to recognise this transitional period. Working practices, office spaces, commuting and the way we communicate are all changing, and will continue to do so. Trying to go back to a traditional 9 to 5 day in the office may be like trying to put the genie back in the bottle.
- Dr Sue Williamson and Associate Professor Linda Colley are authors of the recently released report Working During the Pandemic: From resistance to revolution. The authors acknowledge the support of the CPSU, which partnered on this project.