Adapting policy to manage crisis: Reflections from APSC COVID-19 Taskforce leader Marco Spaccavento
In early March, when COVID-19 began developing into a serious issue in Australia, HR professionals across the nation were faced with rapidly transforming workplaces to respond to this unprecedented public health crisis. With varying workforce needs and considerations, APS agencies were under pressure to manage the immediate impact to staff from the pandemic while also maintaining critical services for the community; it was clear that a ‘single source of truth’ regarding APS employment policy was needed to provide agencies with consistent guidance and advice.
With 17 years’ experience working across a suite of policy-related functions in the APS, Marco Spaccavento, Group Manager of Workplace Relations at the APSC was assigned to the helm of the newly established APSC COVID-19 Taskforce. In this role he was entrusted with developing whole-of-APS workplace policies and communications in the context of COVID-19.
The unfolding situation shone a spotlight on the role of HR in addressing the changing needs of the workforce in a way many agencies had never before witnessed, Marco explained. “The biggest question agencies faced was, ‘how do we support our people through this?’, which gave HR a new level of prominence overnight,” he said. “It’s interesting to see how HR professionals responded to that, and made things work. Everyone could see it was an extraordinary time, and HR got a lot of attention.”
In terms of coordinating the APS response to COVID-19, “the APSC was the right place for the taskforce given our role in matters such as enterprise-wide employment policy and workplace relations policy,” Marco stated. “But it’s not only APSC who have been involved – people from PM&C, Defence, Finance and Home Affairs all came on board. And of course, we’ve been assisted by advice from agencies like Health, Comcare and Safe Work Australia… It really has been a whole-of-APS effort.”
Given the scope at hand – with policy changes impacting a significant number of staff across the APS – potential adjustments had to be thoroughly considered at both a high strategic level and a detailed on-the-ground level. A major challenge for the COVID-19 Taskforce, therefore, was balancing the implementation of preventative measures with ensuring the continuity of business operations. “The main focus we had, like everyone else, was on stopping the spread of the virus. But we also had to keep the APS able to deliver for Australians – more Australians than ever before are dependent on our services. Plus, we had to be consistent with what Government was advising across the country, with rules around physical distancing and so on,” he said.
“We also considered the ease of implementation for agencies; how quickly they could move on these changes, and what longer-term effects they could have.” Though some policy changes, like the extension of personal leave to casual employees, were intended only for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, others will likely have a lasting application. Almost overnight, there was a significant shift across the APS to transition staff to work from home. “This was a big change and it had to happen quickly as a direct response to concerns about how the pandemic was travelling through the community. We weren’t quite sure how it would go, as we’d never done it at this scale before.”
Marco acknowledged that at the time, the taskforce wasn’t quite sure what to expect. “There were questions about things like IT system capacity. Could agency systems cope with a huge upturn in remote access? How well could jobs even be done remotely? On a more practical level, what could be done for people who had special ergonomic equipment at work, like chairs, keyboards and desks? These were all aspects that we as HR professionals had to consider when making these changes to policy.”
Shifting the workforce to a new environment was not without difficulties. With the sudden shut-down of schools, many employees found themselves in the unfamiliar territory of not only working from home, but also supervising their children’s learning during the day. To these obstacles, Marco noted that “there were solutions – even if imperfect ones – in the face of something much bigger.” In this case, while some employees were able to balance both responsibilities during usual hours, for others the solution was more unusual – to enable staff to split their workday around the 9am-3pm bracket; for instance, logging off at 9am to help the kids during the day, then returning to continue work after 3pm. “It was an example of the flexibility that both agencies and employees were happy to adopt due to the unusual situation in which we’d found ourselves,” Marco said, crediting the APS’s adaptability and commitment.
Prior to the crisis an endeavour of this scale would have been inconceivable, and for Marco, one of the key takeaways from this experience is how quickly changes were enacted under exceptional circumstances. “There was a recognition that there was something much bigger at stake here. People did extraordinary things to move blockers out of the way – rapidly upgrading IT systems and changing agency policies overnight on things like using agency equipment at home,” he explained.
Despite the initial uncertainties, the transition to remote work has proven successful for many agencies, and Marco has little doubt that the conversation will now turn to the lessons learnt and where to go next. “There’s a question about where we take this approach, now that we’ve tried it at scale.That is going to occupy a lot of HR minds, both in the APS and across Australia.”
“I think many – both agencies and employees – have seen how well it works and will want to keep doing it. Similarly, many others will have concluded it doesn’t work for them, and they’ll be keen to be back in the office. There will need to be some decisions about where we want to go with that one.”
When it comes to developing and implementing internal policy, Marco advises HR professionals to lift their perspective outside of their own department, and even their own agency. “There’s a whole-of-APS perspective, and in what we’ve done lately, a whole-of-Australia perspective too. Sometimes those of us who work on matters internal to the APS can get too focused on the ‘here and now’ in our own workplace.” In particular, Marco extolled the value in HR consulting with other subject matter experts. “The taskforce drew upon a range of experts across the whole APS and it made a huge difference,” he said. “The value of experts and their expertise in different subject areas can’t be undersold.”
For Marco, his experiences leading the taskforce through the developing stages of the pandemic have highlighted the value of a good communications team with a solid communication plan. “At the beginning, when trying to get messages out to as many agencies as possible, having a team who knew how to get those messages out in a way that us policy people didn’t was invaluable. Communication matters. If people understand what you’re doing as soon as possible, it saves a lot of answering questions later.”
Though the COVID-19 crisis has undeniably presented the APS with unparalleled challenges, it has also provided HR professionals with unique opportunities for professional development; when reflecting back over the past few months, Marco notes, “I don’t know that there’s ever been a more interesting time to work in HR than right now – we are being forced to think about and deal with so many issues all at once and in ways we’d never usually be expected to. It’s absolutely fascinating.”