Circular 2020/5: Preparing for a COVID-safe transition for APS workplaces
This circular has been archived
This circular has been superseded by Circular 2022/07: Managing the impact of COVID-19 on Commonwealth agencies
Agency heads should develop and start to implement a transition plan to facilitate the transition of employees to usual workplaces. In doing so, agency heads need to review the balance between working from home and returning to usual workplaces, ensuring the health and wellbeing of their staff along with agency productivity and the delivery of essential services.
The following advice applies to all Commonwealth agencies and their employees including ongoing, non‑ongoing and casual employees. The focus of agencies and employees should be on the continued delivery of critical functions to the Australian public, as well as ensuring workplaces are safe for all employees.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a significant shift in the way the Australian Public Service (APS) has operated to continue to deliver outcomes and critical services to the Australian public.
- The Australian Government and state and territory governments are gradually relaxing COVID-19 restrictions across the economy and institutions.
- Agencies will need to assess the relaxing of COVID-19 restrictions and prepare for what this means for their agency, operational requirements, productivity, and workplaces. This will result in a phased process for agencies in transitioning their employees to usual workplaces.
- The transition plan should take into account lessons learned from the agency’s response to COVID-19.
- Agencies should support the implementation of transition plans with a communication strategy that clearly outlines the purpose of the plan to employees including roles/responsibilities, what this means for them and how the different phases will be implemented. Agencies will need to clearly communicate their transition plans to managers and employees to support implementation.
- Agencies should ensure transition plans are flexible to respond and adapt to changes in advice from the Australian Government and state and territory governments as it is known.
- A single approach for the APS is not practicable given the diversity of working environments. Each agency’s transition plans will be different and will be tailored to their particular circumstances.
Current working arrangements and considerations for the transition to usual workplaces
- In developing a transition plan, agencies should assess their workforce to identify critical functions and categories of employees to prioritise in the transition to usual workplaces in a phased approach. This will enable the most effective transition possible and maintain delivery of outcomes.
- The transition in response to the relaxing of COVID-19 restrictions needs to be in line with broader government policy and health advice, easing of other restrictions across the economy, physical distancing guidance, and the National COVID-19 Safe Workplaces Principles.
- A single approach for the APS is not practicable given the diversity of working environments.
Agency heads should make appropriate decisions for their own agencies when developing and implementing a transition plan. Transition plans may vary, given that many agencies have a geographically dispersed operating environment.
In developing a transition plan, agency heads should consider:
- current advice from the Department of Health, Safe Work Australia, Comcare, and State and Territory authorities, including appropriate physical distancing measures in workplaces, personal and physical workplace hygiene practices, and how employees are supported in adhering to this advice;
- whether some employees or categories of employees have a greater need to be in the workplace than others, and should be prioritised;
- personal circumstances of individual employees, e.g. whether they are classified as a vulnerable person;
- arrangements to support employees with caring responsibilities, such as whether schools and childcare centres are open and accessible;
- any local restrictions, for instance, in localities where a cluster of COVID-19 cases has been identified (refer to the Localised outbreaks section of this Circular);
- clearly communicating local restrictions and government advice to employees, including advice relating to workplaces and public transport;
- requirements to actively identify employees who may be able to be mobilised to deliver critical functions in other agencies to the APS Workforce Management Taskforce, as well as availability for internal mobility;
- ongoing workplace health and safety implications and obligations under both a transition back to usual workplaces and working from home arrangements;
- modifying workplace attendance arrangements where the agency cannot maintain physical distancing in the workplace, for example, rostering employees to work from the office or home on different days or alternate weeks, or facilitating more flexible start and finish times;
- implementing the National COVID-19 Safe Workplaces Principles, such as engaging with employees and, where they choose, their representatives to identify and control risks; adapt and promote safe work practices; actively control against the transmission of COVID-19 in the workplace; respond to any cases of COVID-19 in the workplace.
- As agencies may implement transitions differently and circumstances vary, any decision made by one agency should not necessarily be regarded as setting a precedent for others.
- Transition plans should facilitate ongoing business continuity, the delivery of outcomes and the continued delivery of critical services to the Australian public.
- There are jurisdictional differences between school operations within Australia. However, as all APS employees are essential workers, most employees should be able to access supervision for their children.
- Where employees are not able to access supervision for their children, in the first instance, agencies should facilitate flexible working arrangements to allow employees to continue working.
- Where flexible working arrangements cannot be accommodated, agencies should consider whether the employee can temporarily undertake a different (more flexible) role, either within their agency or in a different agency.
- Where an employee is not available for work, they will need to access an approved leave type.
- Employees who choose not to send their children to school, and subsequently make themselves unavailable for work, may utilise their available leave credits. Where credits are exhausted, there is no entitlement to additional paid leave.
- Paid carer’s leave may be appropriate in specific circumstances. Paid carer’s leave is available to full-time or part-time employees where the employee needs to look after a family member or a member of their household who requires care or support because of a personal illness or unexpected emergency affecting the member. See Fair Work Ombudsman guidance on personal/carer’s leave during COVID-19 and Circular 2020/1: COVID-19 Leave Arrangements for further information.
- The transition to usual workplaces may not be linear. Agencies should ensure transition plans are flexible to respond and adapt to changes, including as a result of a localised outbreak of COVID-19. Agencies will need to follow the current advice from the Australian Government and state and territory governments.
- Where there is a localised outbreak, agency heads should facilitate Australian Government employees in the location of the outbreak to work from home, where it is practicable to do so.
- The ability for employees to work from home will depend on the types of advice and work they need to undertake. For operational reasons some employees will need tocome to their usual workplace.
- Australian Government agency heads need to ensure operational requirements are met and services continue to be delivered.
- Agency heads are responsible for making working from home decisions in their agencies. Relevant factors to be considered in decision making include the ability to meet operational requirements, as well as security, health considerations, IT and remote working capacity.
- Agencies should consider how work could be redesigned and flexibility provided to suit working from home as necessary – for instance, by facilitating different working hours and providing other reasonable flexibilities. Agencies should be mindful of the provisions of their enterprise agreement or other industrial instruments.
- Agencies should put in place arrangements to support employees that are working from home. These may include regular check in arrangements, teleconferences, and other mechanisms to maintain regular communication between employees and their managers.
- Agencies must ensure staff working in office environments are adhering to physical distancing principles, and following the latest health and hygiene advice from the Department of Health, and Chief Medical Officers.
- The APS Commissioner continues to lead the APS Workforce Management Taskforce in its role to coordinate and support the mobility of employees between APS agencies in response to COVID-19.
- This Circular does not impact agency responsibility to continue to review their critical functions based on current and emerging needs in response to COVID-19. In doing so, agencies will identify employees who are able to undertake a temporary mobility opportunity to the APS Workforce Management Taskforce. This will ensure the continued delivery of critical government services to the Australian public.
- Agencies must continue to identify employees available for temporary mobility opportunities to the APS Workforce Management Taskforce.
- More information on mobility can be found in Circular 2020/6: Temporary mobility arrangements as part of the continued response to COVID-19.
- Agencies must implement their business continuity and transition plans, including risk management, and determine how they will transition back to usual workplaces and what they will do to continue to deliver essential services to the Australian public.
- Agencies should communicate actions from business continuity and transition plans to employees and maintain regular discussions regarding the transition back to the usual workplace as well as what work is available.
Preparing for the future
- Agencies should consider any lessons learned from their response to COVID-19, and how this could impact on the transition to usual workplaces, throughout the recovery phase.
- This includes agencies considering whether any changed practices have produced benefits and how these can be integrated into their current and/or future operating environments to improve workplaces.
- Agencies should refer to their business continuity plans as restrictions are eased, and update them as necessary taking into account lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Interaction with Circular 2020/1 and Circular 2020/3
- This Circular does not supersede, and should be read in conjunction with, Circular 2020/1: COVID-19 Leave Arrangements.
- This Circular supersedes Circular 2020/3: Remote working and evolving work arrangements.
- This Circular does not limit or restrict agency head power to facilitate working from home where they decide to do so. This could be for cohorts of their employees, or on a case-by-case basis.