Uncapped remote working on the cards for Australian public servants

By on 07/05/2023 | Updated on 07/05/2023
A photograph of a home worker.
Photo by freepik.com

Australian public servants would be able to request an unlimited number of remote work days under new concessions by the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) as part of bargaining talks.

In an update issued on 1 May, the APSC said the federal government’s chief negotiator Peter Riordan had put forward a proposal that included “extensions to existing entitlements to allow flexible work requests for any reason”. This moves away from mandated caps on the number of days officials can work remotely, which had proved controversial.

Though minister for the public service Katy Gallagher touted an approach to bargaining in October last year that would reduce fragmentation of pay and conditions across the APS, individual agencies will have the final say on flexible work arrangements for their staff, taking into consideration frontline service provision, security and other factors.

“The proposed entitlement won’t include a cap on the number of days employees can request to work from home. Instead, agencies will be required to consider what arrangements are appropriate in their agency, taking into account that agencies and their employees know their operating environment and job types the best,” the APSC said.

If an agency is unable to accommodate a flexible work request, it must “genuinely try to find alternative arrangements to accommodate the employee’s circumstances”, the APSC said.

Read more: Australian Public Service staff get interim 3% wage rise as government pledges end to ‘pay bargaining Hunger Games’

According to The Mandarin, remote working limits are favoured by some of those in the senior executive service – the most senior leadership group in the Australian Public Service – who value face-to-face interaction between teams and colleagues.

“You have told us a common approach to flexible work is one of the most important items to APS employees. Following productive discussions, we are confident we can reach a positive outcome for both APS agencies and employees on this matter,” the APSC update said.

Flexible working principles – and the possibility of a four-day week

On 13 April, the APSC published a set of flexible working principles designed to make the public service “a model employer” and to “redefine the future of work” in government. The aim is to embed flexible working in the culture of the APS, making it applicable to all roles but framed by organisational needs. The APSC noted that arrangements should “value meaningful and regular face-to-face contact”.

It is hoped that the move to a flexible working model will help to attract a more diverse pool of candidates – including those who live outside Canberra – as the Australian Public Service, like many other civil and public services around the world, competes with the private sector for talent.

Read more: Australian federal government firms up flexible working

The move to flexible working by default is understood to be a central demand of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) during negotiations.

“It is no secret that the APS is facing an attraction and retention crisis, and that current APS employees are bearing the brunt of that, with burnout, turnover and workloads all sitting higher than they should be. But fully embracing flexible work and opening the doors of APS employment to new parts of the population could be a game-changer,” CPSU national secretary Melissa Donnelly said.

“Creating an APS workforce that is more reflective of the public it is there to serve has the potential to be transformative for the services it delivers. The APS has everything to gain and nothing to lose in negotiations on flexible work and working from home.”

The CPSU’s opening bargaining position is for a 20% pay rise for public servants. According to The Mandarin, it is likely the government hopes that removing the cap on remote working will soften the union’s pay demands.

Earlier in April, the APSC said it would cautiously consider implementing a four-day work week, which Donnelly described as a “central issue” for staff.

“Securing working-from-home rights is a key outcome employees want to see in this bargaining round,” she said.

“The four-day work week, and exploring how that may work in the APS, is another area of interest to employees. Like in other jurisdictions, a pilot or trial may be the best way to examine how the four-day work week could operate in practice.”

Read more: Experimenting with flexible working: testing out what works in the new world for public services

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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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