Technology is an enabler of flexible work practices. The widespread availability of broadband and wireless technologies facilitates the integration of flexible work practices into the daily working lives of many employees. Telework is an arrangement whereby an employee has a formal agreement with their employer to work in a location other than the office, usually a home office. Telework uses information and communications technology to stay connected to other employees and work systems.
Telework provides a useful, tangible example of how developments in technology and the increased presence of mobile devices are having an impact on workforce attitudes, opinions, behaviours and practices. This section examines how the APS is engaged with telework and discusses the impact of this across a range of workforce outcomes including employee engagement and performance.
A recent report examining the benefits of teleworking highlights a number of advantages for both employees and employers.14 Benefits for the employee include cost savings by not having to travel to work, flexibility in work hours and therefore increased ability to manage work-life balance, increased job satisfaction, and a greater ability to participate in the workforce where traditionally this may not have been possible. The benefits to the employer include improved recruitment and retention outcomes, reduced absenteeism, increased business resilience, reduced costs associated with office space and increased productivity.
The latest telework statistics available from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate that around one-quarter of Australian workers (24%) worked at least part of their time from home.15 This result is consistent with data collected as part of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) which indicated that 23% of respondents in 2010 reported working from home at least some of their time.16 The majority of people (71%) who reported working from home worked less than 10 hours a week, while only 5% reported working the majority of their time from home. Those who reported working less than 10 hours a week at home were also more likely to work longer hours each week, suggesting much of the work undertaken at home by these employees was in addition to their standard or normal ‘at-work’ employment. These results suggest the majority of Australians who telework do so on an informal basis, with less than 1% of respondents having a formal teleworking arrangement in place with their employer.
APS telework trial
An APS telework trial was initiated in 2013 to inform telework policy development.
A steering committee is overseeing the trial, led by a representative of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
There are seven APS agencies participating in the trial, representing a range of types of agencies, differentiated by their size, purpose, locations and typical job families. Included is the Australian Public Service Commission.
Trial key performance indicators are:
- employee engagement
- ease, efficiency and effectiveness of telework
- costs and savings associated with telework relative to office-based work.
The trial began with participants from each participating agency using the National Broadband Network or equivalent to telework from their homes. The evaluation of the trial will use qualitative and quantitative information gathered from participating employees, their managers and subordinates. The trial will be evaluated using the key performance indicators listed above.
In 2013, the majority of agencies (78%) had fully developed telework strategies in place, with only a small proportion (8%) reporting they had no policy in place. Furthermore, of the agencies17 that collect information on teleworking, 79% reported they had received applications from employees to telework, with a large proportion of these applications approved. Of agencies that collected the information and had received an application for telework, 35% reported they had approved all applications and another 37% had approved more than half of applications. The most common reason for not supporting an application for telework was that the nature of the work was not suitable for telework. These results are consistent with findings from 2012.
IP Australia provides an example of how telework can be managed and conducted in the APS. Four main categories of telework are available to employees, and policy and administrative processes are in place to manage this workforce segment. The four categories of telework are:
- Outposted work. This is where employees log in to IP Australia's computer network and work permanently from home in a location more than 1.5 hours by car from the office.
This allows IP Australia to retain high-performing employees who want to remain working for the agency, but who do not wish, or are unable, to remain in Canberra or Melbourne.
- Home-based work. This is where employees log in to IP Australia's computer network and work from home in a location that is within commuting distance to the office (generally taken to be 1.5 hours or less by car). Employees in this category come into the office on a regular and agreed basis—at least one day per fortnight—and use an IP Australia-supplied docking station solution laptop at their home office and on IP Australia premises. These employees may be called into the office more frequently if required.
- Ad hoc work. This is where employees log in to IP Australia's computer network and work from home for short periods of time on a one-off or irregular basis, with no intention that the requirement for teleworking will continue.
- Day extender work. This is where employees work in IP Australia's usual business premises during their normal working hours and then log in after hours to the agency's computer network to perform additional work from a home office. This is a common option for higher-level employees expected to work additional hours as reasonably necessary. It can also be used by other employees who regularly undertake additional work from home outside of normal business hours.
Telework is available to all IP Australia employees on a case-by-case basis. It has increased within the agency from approximately 7% in 2007 to 12% in 2013. An agreement for all forms of teleworking must satisfy the following prerequisites:
- be suitable for the work performed
- be operationally viable including that additional costs to IP Australia must be recoverable through higher productivity, or through the attraction and retention of skills, experience and knowledge which would otherwise have to be obtained through higher cost solutions
- be technically viable both from an information management systems and communication technology perspective
- not adversely affect teamwork, normal operations and communications of the workplace
- be mutually agreed on by the employee and manager
- meet the required performance, security and work health and safety standards
- be approved by the relevant delegate
- be reviewable at any time at the request of IP Australia or the employee.
IP Australia case study
IP Australia uses teleworking to help attract and retain high-performing employees.
The agency supports and encourages innovation, investment and international competitiveness through the administration of Australia's intellectual property (IP) rights system. This system includes patents, trade marks, designs and plant breeder's rights. A core aspect of IP Australia's work is examining and granting these rights on a fee-for-service basis.
IP Australia's patent examiners in particular are highly educated in specialist technology disciplines and recruited from around Australia and internationally. During the first two years of their employment, patent examiners undertake an intensive program to provide them with the legal and technical knowledge they need to examine patent documents and determine whether a patent can be granted. This program involves initial formal and on-the-job training provided by highly experienced senior patent examiners, followed by comprehensive on-the-job training. A similar process is also used for the agency's trade mark examiners.
It takes about three years for IP Australia to see a return on this training investment. Some years ago, return on investment was being eroded by significantly higher than desired turnover rates among patent examiners, especially at the three to five-year tenure point. When IP Australia investigated the reasons for this turnover, one cause was found to be patent examiners were returning to where they had previously lived or been educated—often for family and lifestyle reasons. Given the challenges the agency faced to attract employees with the range of qualifications needed, it was important to identify ways to retain those highly sought after skills.
One strategy developed was the introduction of teleworking options for employees. Since the introduction of teleworking, patent examiner separation rates have decreased significantly, assisting to contain recruitment, training, accommodation, utilities and other costs. A number of patent examiners have indicated that the ability to telework has been a significant reason for them remaining in the agency. IP Australia also now has teleworking processes which would increase business continuity options for the agency in the event of disasters or crises.
Outposted and home-based work patent examiners are generally more productive than office-based workers. This generates additional revenue to offset the costs of teleworking and not undertaking office-based activities, while ultimately leading to reduced client costs.
Outposted and home-based work approaches were initially applied to patent, and then trade mark examiners whose productivity is measured by the number of various activities performed in a given time. In recognition that these employees are not involved in certain office-based activities, they are expected to produce more per set period than their office-based counterparts. The additional output required is based on set formulae. Performance expectations are agreed as part of annual performance agreement processes.
If a teleworker does not maintain the required performance, their right to telework can be removed and they have to return to working in an office-based environment while their underperformance is resolved.
The measurement of productivity for other employees is more difficult. The additional productivity requirements vary depending on the job. To assist, IP Australia has developed two teleworking assessment tools. One certifies that an employee has a sufficiently good performance history and identifies the additional performance requirements needed for a teleworking arrangement to be approved. The second tool assists to determine how much of a role is suited to teleworking, noting that a job can be modified to allow a teleworking arrangement to be approved if it suits both IP Australia and the employee.
It is also possible for teleworking arrangements to be agreed for attracting and retaining skills, experience and knowledge which would otherwise be obtained through higher-cost solutions such as employing a contractor.
Generally, teleworker performance is managed through performance management procedures, as it is with the rest of the agency. For effective work performance, it is essential that the teleworker and their supervisor have regular conversations about job requirements and performance expectations, and about performance feedback and development opportunities. Managers have a responsibility to be aware of a teleworker's perception of isolation and establish a communication practice which achieves:
- • regular contact between a manager and teleworker
- participation by the teleworker in team meetings
- sufficient contact with the teleworker to be able to manage all aspects of their performance
- • inclusion of the teleworker in team and corporate training opportunities.
Additionally managers are required to encourage team members and other relevant parties to communicate and engage with the teleworker directly. Teleworkers are also responsible for maintaining usual email and telephone contact with managers, clients and office-based team members in their work area and with other designated teams. Outposted teleworkers are expected to be available for and participate in team meetings through teleconferencing and/or videoconferencing where available.
Teleworking has also been a significant contributor to employees achieving greater job satisfaction, achieving an improved work-home life balance, and accessing affordable accommodation. Environmental and employee benefits have been achieved from reduced employee commuting.
The small number of patent examiners who were teleworking a few years ago has grown to include a significant part of IP Australia's examination workforce. Teleworking is now being used increasingly to attract and retain trade mark examiners and other types of employees across the agency.
A total of 10% of APS employees indicated, through the employee census, that they teleworked to some degree in 2013 down from 15% in 2012. This trend, although worth monitoring, is broadly consistent with the latest HILDA survey results which found the proportion of employees working from home fell from 25% in 2002 to less than 23% in 2010.18 While these figures suggest the APS has a smaller proportion of employees teleworking than Australian employees overall, it is worth noting that the HILDA survey asked employees if they had undertaken any ‘home-based’ work, rather than asking about teleworking per se. Additionally, HILDA survey respondents included employees from micro businesses and self-employed people who used home-based work as a primary location from which to run their businesses. The above notwithstanding, it would seem the proportion of Australian employees who engage in home-based employment or telework may be falling.
Of the APS employees who did not telework in 2013, the highest proportion indicated this was because telework was not an option in their agency (Figure 9.9). While this response option was not available in the 2012 employee census, a higher proportion of employees in 2012 reported they did not telework because they needed to be physically at their workplace and/or they were not allowed to do so, even though they had the kind of job that might enable them to. These results, although not directly comparable to those of 2013, indicate that for a relatively large segment of the workforce, agency and/or workplace characteristics are perceived as the main inhibitors to telework, rather than employee-centred or technological reasons.
Figure 9.9 Proportion of employees teleworking, 2012 and 2013
Sources: Employee census; APS employee census 2012
APS employees from small agencies were more likely than those from larger agencies to report they teleworked to some degree. Figure 9.10 shows that the proportion of employees engaged in telework generally decreased as the size of the agency increased. In addition, Figure 9.11 shows, when examined by agency function, that APS employees from larger operational agencies were less likely than those from other agencies to report that they teleworked to some degree. Employees from extra large agencies were also more likely than employees from other agencies to indicate that the reason they did not telework was a function of their agency and/or workplace (including a lack of supporting technology) rather than individual choice.
This result has implications for the structure of telework opportunities across the APS
with this type of flexible work arrangement, from an employee perspective, not as available
in larger agencies.
Figure 9.10 Proportion of employees teleworking by agency size, 2013
Sources: Employee census
Figure 9.11 Proportion of employees teleworking by agency function, 2013
Sources: Employee census
Men were more likely than women to report they teleworked to some degree in 2013, as were employees with carer responsibilities compared to those without. The proportion of employees teleworking increased with classification, with 6% of APS 1–6, 20% of EL and 23% of SES employees teleworking to some degree. Consistent with this result, employees who teleworked were more likely to have supervisory responsibility than not and were more likely to have more than five years of service in the APS. This demographic profile of APS teleworkers in 2013 is consistent with the group who reported teleworking in 2012.
Teleworking and productivity
While it is generally accepted that telework can deliver a number of productivity and financial benefits for employers and employees alike, directly measuring these benefits is complex.
The Department of Communications Telework webpage, however, provides some insights.19
A number of benefits are highlighted including:
- reducing the time, cost and stress of employees' daily commute to the office
- positioning the organisation as an attractive employer for skilled employees, regardless of their location
- ability to recruit from a wider pool of potential employees
- reducing turnover and retaining valued employees
- saving on office/work space and related expenses
- building collaboration between employees in many different locations
- boosting employee engagement by improving employee work-life balance
- showing corporate responsibility.
The employee census uses measures of employee performance and availability that, together, provide a proxy measure of employee productivity. These include, although are not limited to, employee engagement, hours worked, performance and satisfaction with work-life balance. These aspects of APS productivity will be examined here for employees who indicated they teleworked to some degree in 2013.
Figure 9.12 shows employees who indicated they teleworked in 2012 and 2013 had higher levels of employee engagement than those who did not. This finding for APS employees is consistent with the literature whereby employee engagement is positively impacted by flexibility in work arrangements and individual choice in deciding how to achieve work outcomes.20
Figure 9.12 Employee engagement for employees teleworking, 2012 and 2013
Sources: Employee census; APS employee census 2012
When engagement levels are considered across all telework situations, a slightly different pattern emerges. Figure 9.13 shows that employees who:
- teleworked and those who chose not to telework showed consistently high levels of employee engagement
- did not telework because it was not an option in their agency or they were not allowed to (that is, some aspect of the workplace prevented them from engaging in telework), showed the lowest levels of engagement
- do not telework because there are technical limitations or because they had not considered the possibility, have comparable levels or higher levels of engagement than employees who perceive some aspect of their workplace is preventing them from teleworking
- believe teleworking is not an option because they need to be physically present in a particular work location show lower levels of engagement than those who are teleworking and, other than team engagement, broadly comparable engagement levels with those who indicate that they have not considered the option and those where there may be technical issues preventing them from teleworking.
These results show a degree of complexity in how the experience of teleworking and perceptions of the opportunity to engage in teleworking have an impact on employee experiences of work. It appears that offering a genuine opportunity for employees to participate in telework could have a positive impact on employee engagement, even if employees do not engage in teleworking. Conversely, discouraging teleworking either implicitly or explicitly may have a negative impact on employee engagement.
Figure 9.13 Employee engagement across all telework situations, 2013
Source: Employee census
Figure 9.14 shows teleworkers reported working longer hours than employees who did not telework. They were also slightly less likely to have taken sick leave in the fortnight before the employee census. Additionally, employees who teleworked were more likely to report they had worked more than their standard number of hours in the past fortnight due to task demands.
Figure 9.14 Hours worked for employees teleworking, 2013
Source: Employee census
The challenge for agencies in providing the opportunity for employees to telework is to manage this within a framework of accountability. As can be seen from the IP Australia example, teleworking requires attention to both job design and performance management. Performance management systems should provide clear links for the employee between their work objectives and the priorities of the organisation. They should be based on clear expectations of the standard of work required and result in feedback to the employee providing specific information on how they can improve or sustain their performance. When employees are absent from the workplace due to flexible work arrangements, such as teleworking, performance management becomes even more critical in maintaining two-way communication and ensuring work outcomes are achieved. The Commission has developed a series of tools that can assist agencies to achieve these objectives. These tools include a diagnostic instrument (designed to identify areas of strength and weakness in agency performance management processes), APS-wide work level standards and a suite of learning and development options, including core skills training.
Employees who teleworked in 2013 were slightly more likely than employees who did not telework to report they had received formal and regular informal feedback from their supervisors. Although less than half of all employees agreed their most recent performance feedback would help improve their performance, employees who teleworked were more likely than non-teleworkers to agree they gained some benefit from the performance management process.
Figure 9.15 shows how teleworkers, when rating their own performance, were more likely to report their work performance higher (with the exception of the highest end of the scale) compared to non-teleworkers.
Figure 9.15 Self assessed performance rating for teleworkers and non-teleworkers, 2013
Source: Employee census
Employees who teleworked reported similar levels of satisfaction to other employees in relation to their work-life balance, the support they received from their agency and their access to flexible work arrangements. Closer examination shows the ability to choose whether to telework or not again seems to have an impact on these perceptions.
Figure 9.16 shows employees who choose not to telework had the highest satisfaction levels while those who were not allowed to telework had the lowest. Employees who did not telework because they had not considered the possibility or were unable to due to technology issues were more positive than those who reported the reason they did not telework was a function of their agency and/or workplace.
Figure 9.16 Employee perceptions of work-life balance and flexible work arrangements across all teleworking situations, 2013
Source: Employee census
In summary, employee choice appears to be a clear and consistent feature in ensuring telework makes a positive contribution to individual and organisational performance. Having a perceived element of control in deciding how and when to work appears to have a substantial impact on employee perceptions and their engagement with their job, team, supervisor and agency. Employees who either had the opportunity to telework, who chose not to telework or who had not considered teleworking had the highest levels of employee engagement and showed the highest levels of satisfaction with their work-life balance and flexible working arrangements.
Employees who did not telework due to reasons beyond their control or the control of their workplace (in this instance, technological issues and the nature of the work itself) form a second ‘group’ of employees with mid-range engagement and satisfaction levels.
Employees who had no choice in whether they teleworked had the lowest engagement and satisfaction levels, with those employees who felt their job could be done through telework but who were not allowed to being the least positive of all employees.
One concern occasionally expressed in relation to providing opportunities to telework is the potential difference in the information technology (IT) available in a home or mobile environment compared to the work environment. This year employees who were teleworking were asked how different their telework IT environment was from their workplace IT environment. The majority reported that the IT systems they were using were either not noticeably different from those at their workplace or, where a difference did exist, it did not impact their ability to do their work. Only 4% of employees indicated that their telework arrangement had a negative impact on their productivity. Another 7% indicated that while their IT systems were noticeably different from their workplaces, these differences resulted in increased productivity, that is, their differing IT environments had a positive impact on work outcomes.
Productivity and performance
Employees who teleworked at least some of the time in 2013 were asked about their perceptions of their experience across a range of workplace and performance factors, including their own assessment of productivity and work-life balance impacts.
Figure 9.17 shows results are generally positive with the majority of employees agreeing they were more productive because of the arrangement and the flexibility enabled them to better balance their work and home commitments. While less than half of all employees who teleworked in 2013 felt they were able to perform all aspects of their job while teleworking, a relatively high proportion were unsure. Similarly, almost 40% of employees who were teleworking indicated they were unsure whether they were able to take on extra work.
These results warrant further investigation to determine if they are an outcome of teleworking or a manifestation of the type of work employees are undertaking through teleworking arrangements; for example, working on a specific task or project or occasionally teleworking
to accommodate a particular life event or heavy workload.
The majority of employees who teleworked indicated they would like to continue the arrangement and would recommend telework as a flexible working option to others.
Figure 9.17 Employee perceptions of teleworking, 2013
Source: Employee census
14 Deloitte Access Economics, Next Generation Telework: A literature review, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, (2010).
15 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Locations at Work, (2008).
16 University of Melbourne, Families, Incomes and Jobs, vol. 8: A Statistical Report on Waves 1 to 10 of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey, (2013).
17 90% of agencies (covering 96% of the APS workforce) collected information on applications received for regular teleworking arrangements.
18 University of Melbourne, Families, Incomes and Jobs, vol. 8: A Statistical Report on Waves 1 to 10 of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey, (2013).
20 LA McNall, AD Masuda and JM Nicklin, ‘Flexible Work Arrangements, Job Satisfaction, and Turnover Intentions: The mediating role of work-to-family enrichment’, The Journal of Psychology, (2010), vol. 144, no. 1, pp. 61–81; J Hayman, ‘Flexible Work—Schedules and Employee Well-being’, New Zealand Journal of Employee Relations, (2013), vol. 35, no. 2, pp. 76–87; Diversity Council of Australia, Working for the Future: A national survey of employees., Sydney, Diversity Council of Australia Limited, (2010).
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Table of contents
- State of the Service 2012-13
- Chapter 1 - Commissioner's overview
- Chapter 2 - Leadership and culture
- Chapter 3 - Integrity and ethics
- Chapter 4 - Employee health and wellbeing
- Chapter 5 - Diversity
- Chapter 6 - Workforce planning and strategy
- Chapter 7 - The national perspective of the APS
- Chapter 8 - The APS in the Asian century
- Chapter 9 - Flexible work
- Chapter 10 - Organisational capability
- Appendix 1 - Workforce trends
- Appendix 2 - APS agencies (or semi-autonomous parts of agencies)
- Appendix 3 - Survey methodologies
- Appendix 4 - Unscheduled absence
- Appendix 5 - Asia effective organisational capabilities
- Appendix 6 - Agency capability level definitions
- Appendix 7 - Women in senior leadership