Agencies need to make working from home part of the new normal

It would be a pity if in the rush to get workers back to the office the lessons learned from the forced working from home experiment were lost.

The genie is probably now out of the bottle in any case because the silver lining from the COVID-19 lockdown is that the potential of technology to change how and where we work has finally been realised.

The federal government has more or less accepted this by belatedly moving to boost the optic fibre connections of the NBN, citing the increased demand for broadband during the crisis.

For many knowledge workers such as public servants, working from home has proved viable, cut commuting and helped some households rebalance.

Business and consumers have also adjusted, moving to online transactions and again emphasising just how important dependable and fast broadband is to a modern economy.

Some businesses are already questioning what kind of bricks-and-mortar base they need, seeing savings in not having traditional offices.

Research from UNSW Canberra and CQ University on Australian Public Service staff also showed that despite fears from public service managers that working from home would allow too much skiving off, productivity was the same or had actually increased.

The report recommended that the experience had shown that post-COVID-19, working from home should be part of more flexible employment arrangements.

Important as public servants are to local businesses, that should not be the priority when it comes to devising the most efficient and practicable way for people to work.

The caffeine habits of public servants should not be the basis of an economy, and the benefits of less traffic, more contact time with family and greater autonomy should be appreciated.

The announcement from the Public Service Commission that it was time for agencies to get their staff back in the office did not mention this and indeed the news was greeted by the PM and business alike as a sign that the economy would soon be humming again, particularly in business districts with governments departments and agencies.

This doesn’t mean that working from home suits everybody, that we should eschew the important face-to-face social contact that on-site attendance brings or that it is a one-or-the-other situation.

We are social animals and have social needs. Not every worker will want to be staring into a screen in their dressing gown or conducting a Zoom meeting in shorts all the time.

But the opportunity is there if desired to restructure the working week and create a mix of at-home and in-house arrangements tailored to requirements.

COVID-19 has already changed assumptions about how many of us work and put into sharp focus the importance of getting the technology right to support the economy.

Employers, particularly the APS and state and territory counterparts, need to think hard about how they can adapt to this new environment because even if many of us just want the world to go back to the way it was, the world has moved on.

They should be setting up working groups to develop the ground rules and structures necessary, together with employee groups such as the CPSU, for a productive and practical working-from-home regime.

Workers with young families would benefit particularly from such a formal arrangement.

Part of that should also include defining when one is clocked on or off to avoid seepage into the private lives of employees, already a downside to our increased connectivity.

The office is not about to disappear but the alternative can be liberating, allowing greater choice for where people live, a better use of resources and less rigid view of the workplace.

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