New ways of working
Like organisations across the globe, the experience of working remotely at scale across the APS is demanding new tools and capabilities to ensure arrangements support both organisational productivity and employee wellbeing.
Flexibility has long been a feature of the APS, incorporating arrangements to enable people to balance personal responsibilities with work life, while continuing to deliver organisational outcomes.
This approach to flexibility continues—necessitated in part by continuing localised stay-at-home orders in response to the COVID pandemic. APS data aligns with broader labour market research: expectations have shifted and employees are now likely to seek greater levels of flexibility as an ongoing feature of work.36 The office, however, is likely to remain a central workplace, for its role in building culture, fostering collaboration and maintaining connections with colleagues.
The nature and application of flexible work depends on each agency’s business and operational circumstances. Arrangements may include:
- flexible work locations such as home-based work, remote work, telework and hybrid work
- flex time or time off in lieu
- flexible conditions including part-time work and job-share arrangements.
Access to some form of flexible work is common across the APS. Around two-thirds of respondents to the 2021 APS Employee Census said they were accessing a type of flexible arrangement.37 However, the past year has seen a rise in ‘hybrid working’—that is, a mix of working at, and away from, an employee’s usual place of work across the working week. In 2019, 22% of APS Employee Census respondents worked away from the office or from home at least part of the time. This increased to 53% in 2020. The APS workforce continues to embrace these arrangements throughout 2021, with 46% of respondents working this way.38
Looking to the future, flexible working will remain a key feature of the APS employee value proposition, improving employee satisfaction, retention and attraction of new talent. With some roles that can be performed remotely from anywhere and flexible working arrangements on offer, there are opportunities to access new labour markets. For example, in highly competitive labour markets such as Canberra, APS agencies are reporting challenges recruiting for specialist digital and ICT roles, while remote working may facilitate access to the larger talent pools in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.
APS employees recognise the value their agency places on flexible working. In 2021, three-quarters of APS Employee Census respondents indicated they were confident that if they asked for a flexible work arrangement, it would be given reasonable consideration. Very few respondents (10%) said lack of support for flexible work practices was a barrier to workplace performance.39
Like other public service jurisdictions, APS agencies are considering how to better structure their workforce to meet the changing ways of working. Around two-thirds (68%) of agencies indicated their flexible work policy had been reviewed and updated since COVID-19.40
Remote working productivity
On balance, working from home can unlock significant gains in terms of flexibility and time for employees and could even increase the nation’s productivity. Risks can be managed but we should keep an eye on them and be ready to intervene if necessary.41
Michael Brennan, Chair, Productivity Commission
Understanding the impacts of the changing location of work continues to develop across all organisations.42 Employers are actively monitoring the effectiveness of their operations and the productivity of the workforce, and the APS is no different. Traditional assumptions are being challenged and the relationship between employees’ presence in the office, mobile technology and worker productivity are being re-examined.43
Drivers of productivity measured through the APS Employee Census, such as innovation and employee engagement, remained high in 2021.44 Almost half of all respondents to the 2020 APS Employee Census self-reported higher productivity since the emergence of COVID-19.45 Further, the majority of respondents in 2021 indicated that their workgroup cooperates with others to get the job done (87%), and that they contribute to their team by suggesting ideas to improve the way they work (85%).
Recognising that the COVID-19 pandemic required an unprecedented large-scale change to working from home, the Productivity Commission has explored the benefits and challenges of these new ways of working across the economy.46 The study found that working from home or hybrid working arrangements can unlock significant gains in terms of flexibility for employees.
Employees benefit from reduced commuting, allowing more time for other activities, such as exercise and family time. There are productivity gains arising from greater autonomy to manage workflow and less interruptions from colleagues. However, the Productivity Commission cautions that employers will need to balance the potential benefits with increased organisational complexity and additional risks from having a hybrid workforce. These risks include negative changes to organisational culture, information security challenges, and increased technology costs.
The Productivity Commission predicts that working from home will continue to be a key feature of future workforces, with organisations and employees becoming more effective at working from home and negotiating mutually beneficial outcomes.
36Boston Consulting Group. (2020). The Expectation Gap in the Future of Work. 14 December.
372021 APS Employee Census.
39To a great or very great extent.
402021 APS Agency Survey.
41Productivity Commission. (2021). Media release: Forced experiment working from home. 16 September.
43OECD. (2020). Public servants and the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic: Emerging responses and initial recommendations 27 April.
442021 APS Employee Census. Innovation Index is 68%; Engagement Index is 73%.
45The emergence of COVID-19 for the purposes of this report refers to February 2020.
46Productivity Commission. (2021). Working from home: Research paper. 16 September.