Australian Public Service swings behind working from home amid redeployment drive

By on 01/04/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020

The Australian Public Service (APS) is to begin a “deliberate and phased” approach to working from home, public service commissioner Peter Woolcott said on Tuesday. The move follows reports of anxiety among public servants who are still working in government offices, despite prime minister Scott Morrison encouraging people to avoid the coronavirus by working from home where possible.

Alongside a move towards remote working, APS leaders are also orchestrating a redeployment drive that will see thousands of federal employees moved to functions critical to tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and supporting the economy.

Woolcott announced on Sunday that “wherever practicable, public servants should work from home, subject to the decisions of agency heads”. The policy change came three days after a spokesperson from the Australian Public Service Commission told The Mandarin that there was “no general direction for APS staff to work from home”.

Prior to Sunday’s announcement, one official told The Canberra Times: “In two months’ time it will be terrible to know that Canberrans died needlessly because the public service didn’t encourage its staff to work from home where possible.”

Guidance on home-working arrangements for APS staff has since been updated to state that agency heads should consider factors such as the “ability to meet operational requirements, as well as security, IT and remote working capacity”, and that agencies should consider how work could be “redesigned and flexibly provided” to suit working from home – for example, by facilitating different working hours.

According to The Canberra Times, by then departments had already begun moving civil servants out of government offices. Nine thousand Australian Taxation Office (ATO) employees – around half of the department’s workforce – were working remotely by 27 March, for example.

Moving employees to where they are most needed

Woolcott and Scott have also asked agency heads to redeploy staff to tackle coronavirus. The Mandarin reported that the redeployment will be managed by the newly-established APS Workforce Management Taskforce. Agencies have been told they must “identify employees available for temporary mobility opportunities”, and that employees must be prepared to do whatever is required and “are not to be stood down”.

The taskforce’s priority is to increase capacity in areas that are critical to the delivery of government services impacted by COVID-19. Officials have already been redeployed to the Department of Health’s National Incident facility, while by Monday afternoon 2,000 public servants had volunteered to be moved to Services Australia – the agency responsible for welfare payments and other services – to support the roll-out of the job seeker programme. APS staff are also expected to be shifted to the ATO to support the new Job Keeper program for businesses.

Woolcott said that staff won’t be forced to redeploy, but that they may be asked to work in a different role within their organisation or take leave.

‘Unnecessary number of staff being required to attend the office’

When it comes to remote working, there have been reports that some departments – including Services Australia, Defence and some smaller agencies – have been reluctant to allow staff to work from home, even when they can work remotely.

Professionals Australia ACT branch director Dale Beasley, representing Commonwealth scientists and engineers, told The Canberra Times that many staff were buoyed at the weekend by the commissioner’s comments about home-based work. “But as the days have passed we’re still seeing an unnecessary number of staff being required to attend the office to perform work they could, and should, be doing from home,” he said. “Employees are genuinely fearful of getting sick as a result of their commute on public transport, so to a degree it doesn’t matter what social distancing measures are in place at the office.”

The newspaper reported that the Labor party’s public service spokeswoman Katy Gallagher wrote a letter to Woolcott, in which she said: “If there is a way to reduce the numbers of staff in the office this should be aggressively pursued”.

Woolcott said every agency had “for some time” prepared for work-from-home arrangements, with trials of flexible arrangements and by testing IT, but that some agencies were able to offer greater levels of working from home more quickly than others.

The Mandarin reported that the APS Chief Operating Officers Committee, a sub-committee of the Secretaries Board, has established a separate working group of chief information officers to evaluate and monitor the capacity of IT infrastructure to support large-scale remote access demands.

In response to employees at agencies that are refusing to allow remote working, Woolcott said they should tell their HR or the corporate support team about their concerns.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, The Australian Financial Review reported that public servants still working in government offices say the federal government is ignoring its own rules designed to stem the spread of the virus, including enforcing social distancing and implementing adequate hygiene measures.

Staff at Services Australia, who are dealing with unprecedented demand for Centrelink services and new unemployment benefits, have been told their work is regarded as essential and that they must work from their offices as usual. “The real problem is people getting too close to each other, including management,” one employee told The Australian Financial Review. “The spacing is sufficient but then my manager will give us a task to complete in pairs which means we can’t effectively space. Working from home is dismissed with no reason as to why. It feels like they’re just trying to hold out against the inevitable for as long as possible.”

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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