The move from regular workplaces has been among the bureaucracy's largest and fastest changes during the pandemic, writes DOUG DINGWALL. In A small office at his home in Kaleen, Commonwealth public servant Miles Davis spends much of his working week seated in a fluoro green chair and beneath a poster that says "I want to believe". He uses an American-style drip coffee maker for his caffeine fix, and confesses to sometimes wearing running gear beneath his work apparel as encouragement to exercise. "If I'm already in my running shorts then it's just easier, or maybe it's harder for me not to do it," he says. The Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources employee delivers IT support from the spare bedroom that has become his main workspace. When he gets up, it's often to look after his newborn son, Morgan.
The department rolled out Microsoft Teams and a video conferencing app, Webex, to stop staff getting lost in email chains. "It is something that we take great pride in when it comes to hopefully making it easier for people to create policy better, by being able to collaborate more easily," Mr Davis said. "Or just in the case of the last few months, we've taken great pride in the fact that we can provide more options for staff just to talk to each other, just to have a conversation, and not just be drowning in Outlook." The department's ICT team enabled emojis in Microsoft Teams to make staff more comfortable chatting on the platform. About the time the Industry Department sent staff home, Mr Davis became a father. Morgan was born on April 7. Since returning from paternity leave, Mr Davis has sat in what he describes as the "awfully coloured" bright green chair at his desk, and travels to the office one day a week. Working from home isn't a natural fit for the public servant, who describes himself as more a "people person". But he's grown comfortable with it, and he said it's made early parenthood easier, letting him look after Morgan throughout the work day. "It's so easy to be able to work from home and then to be able to just stay involved with my family and make sure that my wife is supported," he said.
The home stretch While COVID-19 is the public service's first encounter with working from home on a mass scale, federal bureaucrats have long worked remotely in smaller numbers. A 2019 employee census found about a quarter of the APS workforce reported working remotely, and that 83 per cent of respondents agreed their supervisor supported flexible work arrangements. Nevertheless, Australian Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott said the pandemic response had required the APS to reassess its business model, like all sectors across the economy. "Increased remote working formed part of that adjustment," he said. "As a general rule, this has worked well." Agencies were on the whole well placed to support remote access by their employees."
Monash University workplace expert and co-editor of International & Comparative Employment Relations, Professor Greg Bamber, said early evidence showed a mixed experience of remote working for private and public sector employees. Some were enjoying the lack of commutes and more time for caring roles. Others had found the lines between work and non-work hours were blurring, and had felt socially isolated. "People go to work to do work, but also much of the research suggests that the workplace does provide a community for people," Professor Bamber said. "They value that about going to work. Some people who live by themselves have said that they have had no social contact with anyone for days and days except by Zoom, or Skype, or FaceTime, or the phone, or some other online platform."
Department of Veterans' Affairs public servant Belinda Bastiaans said she initially felt a sense of loss when she began working from home. The change happened virtually overnight as schools closed in March, making her one of the first in her team to begin working remotely during the pandemic. It was initially a challenge for her son and daughter, as the school closures disrupted their routines. "We worked through that as a family," she said. Ms Bastiaans, assistant director in the governance and ministerial events section at the Veterans' Affairs Department, worked over the phone or online from her home office. She would also help her children, in years 5 and 7, with their schooling, and find time for household chores. "We did have to juggle obviously assisting the kids at times with tasks, so sometimes you'd have to put your work aside, help them and then come back, and that meant sometimes you might work different hours than what you ordinarily would as well," Ms Bastiaans said.
Ms Bastiaans is open to remote working more permanently. "I think as a team it's easier being in the office and being together probably more during the week than being at home," she said. "Having said that, maybe you do three or four days in the office and one or two days at home rather than full time." The public service has started reviewing the results of its mass migration to working from home.
Title Will the public service's work-from-home shift become permanent? Degree of recognition International Media name/outlet Canberra Times/Gloucester Advocate Media type Country Australia Date 22/06/20 Producer/Author Doug Dingwall URL https://www.gloucesteradvocate.com.au/story/6795057/will-the-public-services-work-from-home-shift-become-permanent/ Persons Greg Bamber
- public servants
- public service
- Australian Public Service
- working from home
- Microsoft Teams
- remote working
- social contact
- New Technologies
Research output: Contribution to journal › Article › Research › peer-review
Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceeding › Chapter (Book) › Research › peer-review
Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceeding › Chapter (Book) › Other › peer-review
Press / Media
Press/Media: Public Engagement Activities