The Commonwealth public service will continue to embrace flexible work arrangements, including working from home, to examine how it can best improve productivity and employee welfare.
The Australian Public Service Commission's State of the Service report was tabled in parliament on Monday and spells out the need for the APS to maintain a commitment to flexible working if it is to continue attracting top level talent.
APS Commissioner Peter Woolcott said the report highlights the "innovation, resilience, and mobility across the APS workforce" during the COVID-19 pandemic, of which shifting in large parts to working from home was an exemplar.
Prior to the pandemic 22 per cent of public servants worked from home some of the time and almost all agencies offered working from home arrangements.
At the height of the pandemic 56 per cent of public service employees were working from home and one in five agencies had its entire workforce at home. Currently, 24 per cent of the APS remains exclusively working from home.
"In response to the pandemic, flexibility became synonymous with business continuity and protecting the health of APS employees," the report stated.
In September, the APSC called public servants back to the office, where health regulations allowed, which drew the ire of many for abandoning the flexibility improvements gained thanks to COVID-19.
However, while there are concerns within the APS about the sustainability of increased working from home, the report makes it clear it will not be abandoned.
"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 world-class APS," the report reads.
"With the right support and systems in place, flexibility can support organisational performance through higher engagement, and offer improved work/life balance to individuals."
Indeed, the report notes the APS will need to maintain working from home opportunities to meet the expectations of both employers and employees and remain an attractive workplace in the market.
The report cites a survey which found that 97 per cent of respondents wanted to retain the freedom to work flexibly when COVID-19 restrictions are eventually lifted.
"Remote work offers the potential for the APS to access wider labour markets and in-demand skills, reducing geographic barriers to some APS roles," the report stated.
"To remain an employer of choice, and access new pools of talent, flexibility will remain an important component of the APS."
The APSC noted that as yet there remains no hard evidence of a shift in productivity - either positive or negative.
One survey found public servants overwhelmingly reported having a better work/life balance and improved well-being thanks to working from home.
Comcare also reported a decrease in claims between March and August, when public servants primarily worked from home. There was a drop in physical injury claims of 19 per cent and a 15 per cent drop in psychological related claims.
While hard evidence is lacking, the report does find that many parts of the public service increased their output in direct response to the pandemic.
It also provided some examples of how productivity was impacted on a small scale by examining two different teams within the ATO.
One, a small team that had 40 per cent of its staff redeployed to other parts of government, reported productivity gains of about 25 per cent per worker. Some reasons for this were that the team was already geographically dispersed and therefore used to working remotely and rarely had to access classified information or more than one system.
However, another larger team reported productivity decreases due mainly to technology issues and not having the same level of equipment at home.
So while there is a belief within the APS that flexible working where possible should be supported, it will be closely monitored to ensure productivity is not reduced.