Public servants are choosing to work from home in the tens of thousands as Commonwealth agencies permanently embrace remote working despite the easing of Covid social distancing rules.
New figures released to the Senate show that employers in about 30 agencies have approved more than 22,300 requests from staff to work from home either part or all of the week.
It follows the public service's mass shift from regular workplaces last year, when nearly two-thirds of public servants worked from home at the height of the pandemic in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus.
The new figures show that more than six months after Commonwealth workplaces were told to begin moving staff back to regular offices following months working at home, federal agencies are embracing remote working permanently on a large scale.
However some public service employers have been accused of resisting working from home after rejecting applications and reporting low numbers of requests from staff to work remotely.
The Australian Taxation Office has approved more than 10,000 staff requests to work from home since September, signalling about half its workforce is spending at least some of the week working at home.
Other agencies permanently embracing mass-scale working from home are the Health Department (2536 requests approved), the CSIRO (2536 approved) and the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources (1104 approved).
Public sector workplace experts say the large number of public servants wanting to work from home is a legacy of the mass move from workplaces during the height of the pandemic.
UNSW Canberra researcher Sue Williamson said working from home - or hybrid working, a combination of working from home and the office - was fast becoming a permanent feature of workplaces, including in the public sector.
The new numbers, given in response to a Senate question on notice, showed that public servants wanted to continue working from home, and that many of these requests were being met, she said.
Her research findings last year, co-authored with CQ University researcher Linda Colley, showed that more than two-thirds of Commonwealth public servants wanted to keep working some hours from home each week, and that managers were supportive.
"This is a positive development which will benefit organisations and employees," Dr Williamson said.
Employers were also becoming increasingly aware of the need to retain staff by letting them work from home, she said. Research showed 40 per cent of employees were considering changing their job in the next 12 months.
"It is therefore imperative that organisations continue to enable employees to work from home, at least for part of the week," Dr Williamson said.
"The public sector has been a leader in providing flexible working arrangements, and post-pandemic there is an opportunity to continue to lead in this area."
Community and Public Sector Union national secretary Melissa Donnelly said the public sector had been able to deliver in stressful times during the pandemic, and had "shown that working from home more than works".
"The CPSU is working with members and agencies to encourage practical work from home policies," she said.
"We are seeing some agencies like the ATO set the standard, while others such as the Department of Social Services are falling back into its recalcitrant ways, unable to learn the lessons of the pandemic."
The Social Services Department reported 62 staff requests to work from home since September - 12 of which were rejected. A spokesperson said it was applying the directions it received from the public service commission in September about working from home.
"The department provides access to flexible working arrangements on a case by case basis," the spokesperson said.
The public service commission's surveys during the height of the pandemic in Australia showed tens of thousands of bureaucrats were working at home, with the figure peaking at about 64 per cent in August.
Flexible working had pre-dated the Covid crisis, but would remain a feature in Commonwealth workplaces, the commission said. The Australian Public Service Commission also said the pandemic demonstrated it was possible for the public service to adopt large-scale working from home.
Dr Williamson said the landscape around working from home was shifting, and there was uncertainty about which roles can be done remotely.
"We know that organisations and managers are generally supportive of enabling flexible working arrangements, including working from home, but managers also need guidance to assist them to navigate this new landscape," she said.
"Public sector organisations are just at the beginning of talking about hybrid working, maintaining connection while remote working, WHS issues, productivity, and associated issues, and these conversations are to be welcomed."
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