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'Working from home arrangements have...been quite successful, we're trying to think, what does that mean for the future of how we might work? How do we support ministers when they are remote from us? When we don't have those regular, every few days or at least weekly, face to face meetings?'

– Greg Moriarty, Secretary, Department of Defence[65]

In the pandemic context, APS employees were considered essential to keeping the public safe, delivering services to the community, and enabling continuity of Government.

As for other Australian workplaces, COVID-safe measures were introduced in line with health advice: increasing cleaning of high‑traffic and high-touch areas, hand sanitiser, limits on the number of people in meeting rooms, and increased space between desks. The inability to meet in person prompted increased use of videoconferencing and innovative ways of delivering work in the field.

The largest shift across the APS was the move to working from home, with more than half of the APS working from home at the peak of national COVID-19 restrictions.

The ability for employees to work from home depends on the type of work they do. For operational reasons many employees are required to attend usual places of work. Many of these employees work in frontline call and contact centre roles;[66] others require access to information systems or software unable to be accessed remotely.

The APS managed the risk of exposure to COVID-19 so employees could continue critical work by limiting contact between groups of employees such as rotating teams through the office over different hours of the day or on a week on/week off basis.

Heading home at scale

Prior to the pandemic, almost all APS agencies offered work from home arrangements[67] and 22% of employees indicated they worked away from the office some of the time.[68]

Previously, flexible work was most often utilised by women (56%), and flexible hours, working away from the office or part-time work were the most common flexibility arrangements across all APS employees.[69] 2019 APS employee census data indicates flexibility was well supported, with 83% of respondents agreeing their supervisor actively supported flexible arrangements for all employees, regardless of gender.[70]

In response to the pandemic, flexibility became synonymous with business continuity and protecting the health of APS employees.

In April, at the height of national restrictions, one-fifth of all APS agencies reported that all their employees were working from home. At the highest recorded point, 56% of all APS employees were working from home. This number increased to 69% when Services Australia (which required the majority of its employees to attend usual workplaces for operational reasons) was excluded.[71] 

Managing dispersed teams

'Everyone's adjusted. There's some humour around these things. There's a lot of connection that can come through a screen...the adjustments of a return to work and a return to more normal life...I think we've just got to be quite thoughtful about that and supportive of staff.'

– Frances Adamson, Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade[72]  

During 2020, many APS employees worked from home for the first time in their working lives. Some have thrived, some have found elements challenging, and others have found they prefer their usual work environments. While familiar to some, not all APS managers had experience in managing teams in dispersed environments.

No APS-wide data is available yet, however interim data suggests that this managerial capability is mixed across the APS.[73] Some managers found it challenging while others were comfortable managing employees who were working from home:

  • In one agency, most supervisors (60%) thought their role as a supervisor was more challenging than usual due to work from home arrangements.
  • The majority of supervisors (77%) within one agency thought they would benefit from additional training and support to manage dispersed teams.
  • In one agency, 90% of managers indicated they felt comfortable and well prepared to manage employees for extended telework periods.

‘Executives and managers should resist the temptation to micromanage operations. Instead, they should trust, support and enable the people who are keeping critical operations going, identifying and empowering pockets of critical innovation within the organisation.’[74]

As COVID-19 continues to circulate in the community, employees, managers and agencies will need a flexible approach to home-based work that is responsive to a changing external environment.

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 productive APS.

Changing nature of flexibility

Flexible work is not just about where a person works. Flexibility in the APS includes:

  • flexible location through remote access, hot-desking or the provision of laptop devices to individual employees
  • flexible hours such as compressed working weeks or reduced hours
  • flex time, purchased leave or time off in lieu
  • flexible conditions including part-time agreements, career breaks, job-share arrangements, or individual flexibility agreements.

With the right support and systems in place, flexibility can support organisational performance through higher engagement, and offer improved work/life balance to individuals.

According to the ABS, between 2015 and 2019 there has been a steady increase nationwide in the proportion of people with an agreement in place to work flexible hours (from 31.9% to 34.1%) or to work from home (from 29.9% to 32.1%).[75] The Diversity Council of Australia reports that two-thirds of Australian workers have accessed flexible arrangements in the past year.[76]

Australian research shows employees who have the flexibility they need to manage work and other commitments were 4 times as likely to indicate their team was innovative, close to 3 times as likely to report their team was working together effectively, and twice as likely to agree their team provided excellent customer/client service.[77]

Case study: Measuring productivity – a tale of two teams

Like many APS agencies, the Australian Taxation Office rapidly transitioned to mass remote working in 2020. The ATO has measured the productivity outcomes of this transition for some parts of the agency, and has found that results across the agency varied. Where one team saw increased productivity, another team’s productivity declined.

Team A - Per-hour productivity increased while working from home:

A small team of fewer than 20 employees providing corporate services saw increased productivity throughout the COVID-19 period. As part of the ATO’s pandemic response, 40% of the team was reassigned to other tasks within the agency, leaving 60% of the team remaining.

These 60% of people delivered around 75% of the team’s original outputs, while working from home. Therefore, per‑worker productivity for the team increased by 25%.

The team experienced a small growth in average hours worked, which explains part of this result. The following factors also contributed to the growth in productivity:

  • The team was already geographically dispersed, and was accustomed to working remotely from one another.
  • The work rarely required more than one system to be accessed at a time, and rarely required access to classified information.
  • The nature of the work means that tasks could often be clearly assigned to individual team members.

Team B – Per-hour productivity declined while working from home:

A large team of around 180 employees providing citizen-facing services saw a decline in productivity while working from home. This team provides a review and assessment of citizen information.

Analysis of average review times for 2 key stages of this process shows that the average review time is around 16 hours for employees working in the office, but around 20 hours—or 25% longer—for employees working from home.

The following factors were observed as contributing to this result:

  • Working from across multiple systems at home led to lags.
  • Employees don’t have access to multiple screens or printers at home, which made it difficult to compare information.
  • The use of mobile phones to contact clients and co-workers made it difficult to record notes in real time in the relevant systems, like employees would usually do in the office.
  • Remote working meant that every time an employee needed assistance or advice, they would need to call or message a co-worker or manager, adding time to the process as compared to sitting next to them in an office environment.

Learning through change: Flexible and connected

Flexibility at scale disrupted norms within the APS and provided an opportunity to deepen APS understanding of the core success factors of remote working.

ICT matters

Access to digital tools, information systems and videoconferencing technology were critical during crisis, to ensure timely communication between ministers and the APS, business continuity of Government, and team engagement.

Sustaining this capacity and capability is a critical factor for sustained productivity and engagement. 

High-performance culture

Trust among leaders and teams forms the basis of effective outcomes-based management. This is essential for dispersed workplace environments, and was paramount during the large-scale remote working transition during the pandemic. 

The APS requires skilled managers with the mindset, tools and ability to manage dispersed teams pro-actively, employ outcome-based management, and foster open and accountable ways of working.

Learn and adapt

Home-based or remote work does not suit all roles in the APS, nor all employees.

Some tasks may be better suited to co-location, and others may be more efficiently done in locations with fewer distractions.

For some business functions, a dispersed team may not be a sustainable model.

An evidence-based approach with regular review points is important—to understand the impacts of flexibility on individuals, teams and delivery, and optimise ways of working for success.

Maintain connection

Maintaining connections among people is essential irrespective of location.

Shared work spaces offer opportunities to collaborate through informal and unplanned meetings, and networks may narrow if remote employees only engage with people within their own work area.

A hybrid model that balances greater levels of remote work with physical co-location requires a deliberate focus on employee engagement and connection to maintain collaboration, culture and team cohesion.

Keep talking

Clear, two-way communication is essential to build a shared understanding of a common purpose and prioritisation that carries through, whatever the workplace. Open communication between employees and managers supports employee engagement, planning and shared expectations.

Flexibility will require an individual approach—managers and employees are required to work together to determine what works best, based on the outcomes required of the role.

Employer of choice

‘Potential employees are looking for a dynamic, challenging and flexible work environment, and the APS will need to work hard to attract them.’[78]

Expectations of employees are changing within and outside of the APS, as new ways of working were adopted during the pandemic, bringing the future of work into the present.

Australian employees have increased expectations for accessing remote work. In one survey of Australians, 82% of respondents indicated that COVID-19 has changed how they want to work, and 97% of respondents wanted to retain the freedom to work flexibly when COVID-19 restrictions are over.[79] 

Remote work offers the potential for the APS to access wider labour markets and in-demand skills, reducing geographic barriers to some APS roles. APS employees are highly educated with 83.8% of reported employees having a post-high school qualification, however there are emerging gaps in the skillsets required to meet future need. In 2019, agencies reported skills shortages, particularly in data, digital, ICT and STEM roles.[80]

To remain an employer of choice, and access new pools of talent, flexibility will remain an important component of the APS. 

[65] Greg Moriarty, Secretary, Department of Defence. (2020). IPAA Work with Purpose Podcast Episode #8. 25 May.  

[66] As at 30 June 2020, there were 17,897 APS employees working in frontline call and contact centre roles; an increase from 16,507 in December 2019.

[67] 2019 APS Agency Survey

[98] 2019 APS employee census

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Workforce Management Taskforce Data

[72] Frances Adamson, Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. (2020). Senate Select Committee on COVID-19. 20 August.

[73] Internal APS agency employee survey data [unpublished]

[74] Arjen Boin, Fredrik Bynander, Eric Stern, Paul ‘t Hart. (2020). Leading in a crisis: Organisational resilience in mega‑crises

[75] ABS. (2019). 6333.0 – Characteristics of Employment, Australia, August 2019

[76] Diversity Council of Australia. (2020). The State of Flex 2020

[77] Ibid.

[78] APSC. (2018). Attracting and recruiting

[79] ANZ. (2020). COVID-19 takes flexible working mainstream

[80] 2019 APS Agency Survey