What does flexible work mean for the public sector?

It goes without saying that the nature of work as we know it has changed significantly in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Associate Professor Sue Williamson

One of the shifts has seen the public sector, once an early adopter of flexible work practices, being overtaken by some in the private sphere, according to human resource management expert Associate Professor Sue Williamson from the school of business at UNSW Canberra.

Professor Williamson looked at the challenges facing public sector organisations, managers and employees as they navigate emerging covid-normal workplace models in a study published in the current Australian Journal of Public Administration.

Among the challenges are maintaining productivity, redeveloping employee value propositions, and ensuring opportunity and accessibility for all employees while accommodating the demand for hybrid work.

Innovation versus caution

In an interview with Government News, Professor Williamson said the public sector has always been receptive to flexible working, adopting teleworking in the 1990s before WFH was even a thing.

But now it’s being overtaken by pockets within the private sector.

“We’ve seen that the big companies – the telcos, the big tech companies – are really at the cutting edge of flexible working, hybrid working and having remote workforces,” she says.

“I think the big tech companies are probably more innovative than the public sector and  … are able to innovate really quickly, whereas the public sector by its very nature is more cautious, because it’s accountable to the taxpayer.”

A new employee value proposition

The paper reports that pre-pandemic 2019, 15 per cent of lower level APS employees and around a third of senior employees worked from home. By late March 2020, APS employees had been directed to work from home and at the peak of pandemic lockdowns, 56 per cent worked from home.

They seemed to like it that way.

Almost a third of respondents to a 2021 McKinsey survey indicated they were likely to leave their organisation if required to move back on-site, with 52 per cent of employees preferring a flexible working model.

Another survey of 2,100 workers, conducted in 2021, found 60 per cent of women and 52 per cent of men would  look for a new job if they couldn’t continue working remotely, and 69 per cent of men and 80 per cent of women said remote work options were key factors in considering any new job.

Work flexibility has become a new value proposition for employees

Professor Williamson says this highlights how flexibility around work has become a new value proposition for employees, and one that employers will not only have to consider, but tailored to specific groups of workers.

“We did a big survey last year with 5,000 APS employees  and we found about 40 per cent said they would think about changing organisiations if they couldn’t work hybridly,” she says.

“As we move forward those EVPs will need to be tailored for groups of employees rather than for the whole workforce.

“It might be, if you do this kind of work you can spend this amount of time at home; if you’re an employee with a disability we’ll offer you these sorts of things.”

Rethinking productivity

The reports says a 2020 survey indicated that almost 90 per cent of APS managers believed  their team’s productivity had increased or stayed the same during the pandemic, while research from the NSW Innovation & Productivity Council found that 82 per cent of workers felt they were as, or more, productive when they worked from home

However, Professor Williamson says the issue of productivity is contentious because it tends to be based on perceptions, and more research is needed.

Public sector agencies will also have to rethink notions of productivity and how this is measured, Professor Williamson says

If people are spending more time in meetings … what does this mean in terms of networking, connectivity between employees?

Emerging research suggests that during the pandemic lockdowns managers assessed performance on outcomes rather than output – which can contribute to increased performance, innovation, increased employee engagement, and greater stakeholder satisfaction.

Professor Williamson said another interesting finding to emerge from her research was that people where spending more time in meetings.

 “That was unknown till a couple of years ago,” she says. “If people are spending more time in meetings what does this mean going forward? What does it mean in terms of networking, connectivity between employees?”

Intentional leadership

The report says reaping the benefits that can come from working from home, depend largely on the practices and capability of managers, and a key future challenge for the public sector will be managing employee expectations and preferences to work in a hybrid arrangement.

Professor Williamson says research indicates that most people want to work from home between two and three days a week, and the public sector will need to work out how to formalise this.

This could include introducing “anchor days” when the whole team is in at the same time, or minimum onsite requirements.

The public sector is already implement minimum days in the office but more research is needed to determine what’s going on in the private sphere, she says.

Managing a hybrid workforce requires a shift to intentional leadership

Managing a hybrid workforce will require a switch to ‘intentional leadership’ models. Professor Williamson says.

“Intentional leadership goes to managers being really reflective about their leadership and management practices and thinking about what work can be done at home, what work can be done in the office, who gets what work, how does it feed into team dynamics, career development, rather than just being bogged down with the nitty gritty of managing employees on a daily level,” she says.

Proximity bias

Managers, particularly those in the public sector, will also need to be mindful of possible risks of managing a hybrid workforce, Professor williamson says.

One of these is proximity bias, which occurs when managers preference employees who are in their immediate vicinity. This can not only exclude staff from career opportunities, but it can risk dis-engaging workers and introducing gender bias.

“We’ve spoken to lots of managers, and while they’re really careful to try and be equitable, there is a tendency in busy workplaces to give work to the people that they can see,” Professor Williamson says.

“There’s a danger that people not in the office will miss out on the most advantageous and exciting work, and work that is good for career development.

“As we move forward, managers really need to think about proximity bias, and this comes back to being an intentional manager  and working out what staff they’ve got, what projects they’ve got and how to distribute work across distributed teams.”

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