How flexible work could transform APS


As I write this, it is Thursday the 13th of April, or as I like to call it: 11 days until school goes back. This is the fourth time I’ve sat down to start writing, I have 3 missed calls, my coffee is most definitely cold, and it’s only 9.42am. Juggling kids and work isn’t easy, but at least I know I’m not the only one doing it.

For many, the juggling act involves kids, but for others it might look more like work and elderly parents, work and health issues, work and appointments, work and dealing with the loss of a loved one, an unwell pet, COVID-19 or other things life throws at us. This juggling is all part of being human.

The pandemic was a turning point in people’s working lives that saw us finally start to acknowledge working beings as human beings. A rogue dog in the corner of zoom meeting screen, a screaming baby from the new dad who forgot to mute his microphone, or a blank screen altogether because the postie turned up with a delivery – it humanised us in our workplaces. It was well overdue, and we shouldn’t walk that backwards. We should embrace it and lock it in because not only did it allow the public sector to effectively respond to the pandemic and support the Australian community through that difficult time, it led to ongoing benefits for employees, the APS and public service delivery.

This is why the CPSU will be advocating for increased flexibility about where, when and how APS work is performed.

We believe that employees should be able to access flexible working conditions, including working from home and hybrid work, without undue restrictions. We know from research the CPSU undertook with Central Queensland University and UNSW, that overly rigid or restrictive approaches to flexible work are counterproductive and even have a negative impact on morale.

Employees should be able to make requests for flexible work, including changes in hours of work, patterns of work, and the location of work, and the APS should be looking to new and innovative ways of achieving flexibility, including the four-day working week.

The APS Workforce Strategy acknowledges that flexible work is key in addressing attraction and retention issues in the APS, with the 2021-22 State of the Service Report urging agencies to support flexible work. The APS gender equality strategy advocates for enhanced flexibility, as does the APS Diversity and Inclusion report. And the principles that have just been released by the APSC suggest that they will continue to support flexible work.

In 2022, thousands of CPSU members across the federal public sector participated in a bargaining survey which focused on the conditions changes they wanted to see. 74% listed flexible work and working from home as a top three priority, with members reporting they wanted to see these arrangements locked into enterprise agreements where they are sensible, fair and consistently applied.

Too often the ability to access working from home and other types of flexibility relies on having a supportive supervisor, rather than clear and transparent workplace rights. I have heard stories from right across the APS where two employees are sitting next to each other, and one has access to greater flexibility than the other and there is no rhyme or reason to it. This is understandably a source of frustration for employees who are on the receiving end of inconsistent policies, but also for managers who have a lack of guidance on approving and supporting employees to work flexibly. This fragmented approach also has real consequences on attraction and retention because it is easy to understand that people who need flexibility will not apply for a job where their arrangements can change with the wind.

Strong flexible work and working from home rights for APS employees, without caps that unnecessarily restrict flexibility, will grow and diversify the APS, reduce staff turnover and increase employee job satisfaction.

The APS has everything to gain and nothing to lose when it comes to improving its approach to flexible work.

The pandemic took a lot from us, but it gave us something too. It gave us a way to be a person and an employee all at once, and it paved a way to employment for people who otherwise may have remained on the sideline. This can be transformative for so many workers including people with disability, people with caring responsibilities and people in rural and regional areas.

Our working lives have been siloed for so long that stepping outside of those confines feels risky. But when you really look at it, the risk lies in not stepping outside because that siloing of the personal and professional has come at a great cost to economies, businesses, and individuals for as long as it has existed.

Failing to acknowledge the humanity of humans in their working lives and refusing to modernise employment arrangements, such as when and where work is done, is not only exclusionary, but short sighted and limits potential. Because most people will experience the need for flexibility at one point or another. Some will need it for school holidays, like me for right now, and others on an ongoing basis. But these parts of us that make us human don’t make our contributions to society or our workplaces any less valuable – in fact it is the opposite.

A workplace that is made up of people from diverse and varied backgrounds with different experiences, abilities and knowledge is a prosperous one, and that rings especially true for the Australian Public Service.

Strong flexible work and working from home rights in enterprise agreements will see the APS not only reap the benefits of becoming a diverse and adaptive workplace, but become a better employer of people with disability, a better employer of people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, a better employer of women, parents and carers – a better employer of humans.

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