Will the public service's work-from-home shift become permanent?

Press/Media: Expert Comment


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.

Across town in Pearce, Department of Veterans' Affairs public servant Belinda Bastiaans sits at a trestle table in her family room. In phone calls and video conferences, the mother of two supports senior governance committees and councils overseeing veterans' affairs. Until recently, she doubled as a teacher while her children were learning from home when schools closed.

The public servants are among tens of thousands of federal bureaucrats who have worked remotely as a way of avoiding coronavirus infections during the pandemic. In late April, a survey of most agencies showed about 57 per cent of the Australian Public Service was working from home. As of June 9, the figure dropped to 51 per cent, after departments and agencies began the gradual shift back to the office. The pandemic has imposed large, rapid changes in the public service, but the mass movement of staff from their regular workplaces has been among its largest and fastest transformations. Depending on findings from reviews of the experience, it could remake the federal bureaucracy's approach to remote working. When the move from office buildings began, the public service was yet to see if its technology would withstand the sheer numbers of staff working remotely.

Mr Davis, ICT engagement team manager at the Industry Department, was at the front line as bureaucrats set up at home. He said preparing the move was initially nerve wracking, but ultimately his team's "finest hour". Most department staff were working from home within a few weeks, in time for the "lockdown" stages of the pandemic. Mr Davis said he initially struggled when experimenting with working from home himself before department staff moved en masse about early April. "I was late into conversations, I was asking people to do things an hour after they had already done it, so it was a bit disconnected," he said. It became smoother when his team began holding daily videoconference meetings and other regular online catch-ups.

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.

"As we settled into our new norm, our new routine, we all started working really well in that environment." The experience of working from home has changed relationships between staff in the public service. Ms Bastiaans got to know colleagues better, and said some had shared photos of their pets and work spaces. "The only difficulty I would say is that you don't have the ability to be in the office and bounce ideas off each other to get feedback straight away," she said. "You might have to call someone for that and they might be in a meeting or something like that, so that's kind of a missed opportunity." Industry Department employee Miles Davis said he had seen increased productivity in certain tasks after the shift to remote working. "I've seen people that are delivering things at home, that are just as good as what they would be doing if they were in the office and possibly a little bit quicker, maybe because they have less distractions," he said.

Professor Greg Bamber said employers in the past had often been reluctant to let staff work from home. "They suspect that people will just sleep in, in the morning, and put their feet up and relax, but much evidence has been that people are very conscientious typically, especially if employers trust them," he said. "If bosses trust them to work from home, the individuals in most cases more than repay that trust. "My view is, and some research suggests, that we're going to see much more working from home in the future."

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.
Mr Woolcott said a number of APS agencies were already evaluating their workforce response to the pandemic, including lessons learned from remote working. The APS Commission plans to use the findings, and other sources of data, to examine the adoption of large-scale remote working in its annual report on the public service this year. A separate working group of public service chief information officers is also evaluating and monitoring the capacity of its technology to support large-scale demand for remote access to its IT.
Some people who live by themselves have said that they have had no social contact with anyone for days and days except by Zoom. Professor Greg Bamber

Picture Captions:
Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources public servant Miles Davis is juggling working from home with raising nine-week-old Morgan with his wife Sophie. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Department of Veterans' Affairs public servant Belinda Bastiaans is working from home. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Period22 Jun 2020

Media contributions


Media contributions


  • COVID-19
  • public servants
  • public service
  • bureaucrats
  • Australian Public Service
  • working from home
  • lockdown
  • pandemic
  • Microsoft Teams
  • employees
  • remote working
  • Zoom
  • social contact
  • trust
  • employers
  • technology
  • New Technologies