Is it time for a public sector workforce ‘right to disconnect’ clause?

Hybrid models will continue as an established norm for the public sector workforce, bringing new challenges and opportunities for the post-covid workplace, according to a report by the UNSW Public Service Research Group.

Sue Williamson

At the peak of Australia’s lockdown in 2020 more than half of the APS worked from home, according to the report titled Future of Work Literature Review: Emerging trends and issues, and in February more than 40 per cent were still working from home at least once a week.

Now, as more people are now returning to their offices, work as we knew it before the pandemic will never be the same.

One of the reports co-authors, Associate Professor of human resource management at UNSW Canberra Sue Williamson, unpacks some of the findings and what they mean for the public service – including the the question of the right not to work.

GN: How did this research come about and what is it telling us?

SW: We were commissioned to do this by the ATO and Department of Home Affairs, who wanted us to have a look at the latest literature and what see what it said about the future of work.

The APS is looking at what work might look like after COVID and this provides an evidence base.

One of the things to emerge is that working from home is going to become more nuanced. The emerging research shows that younger, people for example, like working in an office, while older employees, people with caring responsibilities and those in management positions like working from home.

This means the demographics of the office might change, and organisations would do well to monitor this, because in the past proximity bias has affected who gets the good jobs and career development opportunities, and the projects that lead to promotions.

GN: What are the challenges to adopting and adapting to the new environment?

One of the main challenges is around work life balance. We know that during the pandemic people tended to work longer hours and a greater bandwidth of hours, which create problems for work and family balance.

There are also health and safety issues, and issues around isolation.

Another challenge is around technostress, which is related to workers having too much to do and being ‘on’ all the time – we all know about Zoom fatigue.

Workers are feeling compelled to stay ‘on’ and put in those long hours, and organisations will need to monitor how much work employees are doing and the hours they’re working.

On one hand it’s great to be able to finish a piece of work after dinner, but it’s also worrying because it means the work-life boundaries are blurred.

That’s why we’re seeing a push from unions for the right to disconnect. About a year ago Victoria Police inserted a ‘right to disconnect’ clause in their collective agreement, but it’s a little sad that the right to not work has to be formalised.

GN: Is this something the public service will need to consider? Formalising the right to switch off?

I think so. Other organisations are doing it and it’s being done internationally. In France, unions have negotiated the right to disconnect.

It could well be something the public sector needs to think about to make sure employees have down-time. This has implications for working from home policies, enterprise agreements and how you regulate people working longer hours.

It would either be implemented as policy via a central directive from the Australian Public Service Commission, or it could be part of the collective enterprise bargaining process.

GN: The report found some managers are struggling with hybrid working structures. What are the particular challenges for managers?

There’s been lots of focus on employees and teams but less around how managers manage, but we know managers need more guidance.

Lots of reports have come out showing they want guidance about how to manage their teams, manage performance, and maintain connectivity.

Research shows that both managers and employees believe the productivity improved and increased during lockdown but there’s still that perception its difficult to manage underperformers if you can’t see them.

Managers also need guidance on countering social isolation of employees and making sure they’re cognisant of employee mental health, which is difficult without one-on-ones, incidental conversations and coffee chats.

The implications of working from home on managers’ careers is another emerging area of research that needs to be looked at more.

GN: The report talks about models like activity based working and remote hubs. How can these work in the public sector?

Before the pandemic public sector organisations, including the APS, had implemented activity based working, but when the pandemic hit it went out the window because of risks around shared spaces and workstations.

It seems now that the whole range of flexibilities is back on the table.

Activity based working enables people to work in different spaces according to the task they’re undertaking. It can lead to increased productivity and foster collaboration and creativity but there are some downsides.

For example, employees like having their own desk with their own stuff, but this can be overcome by virtual means like electronic photo frames that can be moved from desk to desk, and some organisations are trialing these things.

The ACT govt has remote hubs and Queensland and NSW looked this some years ago.

Remote hubs can be located in the suburbs, or in different cities, and closer to employees homes. It means employees get to interact and talk to colleagues, but they don’t have to go into the CBD.

It also means employees aren’t using their own infrastructure and their own equipment which is good for WHS.

Organisations are also thinking about whether they need to stagger start and finishing times, and roster people on and off so they can meet social distancing requirements.

GN: What role will technology play in enabling the flexible workforce?

We’ve seen that organisations have really improved their technology over the last 18 months.

One of the big questions is around what work can be done in real time, and what work can be done asynchronously – or at a different time to the rest of the team.

Internationally we’re starting to see some organisations looking at different types of technology which can make collaboration in an asynchronous environment easier.

It could be a better version of Zoom or Teams, but it’s something that the tech developers and organisations are thinking about.

Technology will continue to develop to make work more flexible, and manage work practices and how individuals and teams work together.

GN: What are the implications for public sector recruitment and workforce planning?

In terms of job evaluations there needs to be greater consideration of who can work from home, which roles can work from home, and which ones need to be in the pre-pandemic workplace.

Organisations are also considering their employee value propostion around offering greater flexibilities to employees to attract people and keep the employees that they’ve got.

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