How public services can meet employees’ preference for flexible work
7 October 2022● News and media
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of flexible work amongst public sector workers and revealed a strong employee preference to work from home at least some of the time.
The challenge now for public services is to change management practices to optimise the potential of flexible working to improve employee well-being and productivity, while maintaining collaboration, knowledge-sharing and organisational culture.
The Australian Capital Territory Public Service (ACTPS) has positioned flexible working as central to their vision to be the most progressive Australian jurisdiction for workplace practices and an employer of choice for employees seeking flexibility. A new report, Flexible working in the Australian Capital Territory Public Service undertaken by the University of NSW’s Public Service Research Group and funded by ANZSOG in partnership with the ACTPS, examines the impact of flexible working on productivity, wellbeing and effectiveness, and identifies factors that can lead to more effective flexible working.
It contains detailed insights for any public sector agency trying to develop optimal ways of managing a flexible workforce, and finds there are four essential elements needed for effective flexible working:
- An outcomes-oriented approach to working. The effectiveness of flexible working is heavily reliant on individual teams and managers. For more effective flexible working, an outcomes orientation needs to be culturally embedded across the ACTPS. We refer to an outcomes orientation as cultural value placed on results, with a focus on the effective achievement of tasks
- A purposeful approach to working from the office. This may include identifying specific activities that require face-to-face interaction to realise improved outcomes, as well as clarifying socio-cultural benefits, such as social learning through modelling or the transfer of tacit knowledge regarding how the organisation works
- A team-based approach to working. More effective flexible working results from “real teams”, where members are connected by a common purpose, have interdependent tasks and roles, share responsibilities, and have complementary skills.
- Improved managerial support and development. Flexible working exacerbates and accentuates existing managerial styles, highlighting fragility in a model that relies on individuals and the need for more focused and proactive management development in this area. Development could focus on translating high-level support for flexible working to the operational context and empowering managers to manage flexible working in ways that ensure work demands and team goals are achieved.
The report focused on knowledge workers within the ACTPS, whose work is generally suitable for flexible working as they work autonomously to undertake knowledge-intensive tasks. Flexible working can involve adjustments in the timing, number of hours worked and the location of work – including working at home.
The researchers adopted a mixed methods approach: gathering qualitative data from ACTPS Flexible Work Working Group meetings and focus group discussions with human resource (HR) managers and general staff. It also involved the secondary analysis of existing datasets (e.g., ACTPS employee census, Microsoft 365 data, building and meeting room data) and focused on the perceptions of middle managers and employees.
The research showed that ACTPS staff value the opportunity to work flexibly, and most participants were satisfied with their level of choice regarding when, and where they work. A key retention factor for the ACTPS is continuing to provide employees flexibility and choice in timing and location of work.
Many research participants expressed strong negative perceptions towards activity-based working, and the report emphasises the importance of the design and configuration of buildings. Managers play a central role in the effectiveness of flexible working; however, some managers seem to be experiencing greater work-life spill-over. This may be due to several factors, including the increased workloads required during the COVID-19 pandemic, an ongoing crisis orientation to working, managers closely monitoring staff working from home, or broader cultural or workload management issue (i.e., unrealistic expectations regarding availability).
A strong finding in the data, which supports existing research, is the central role that middle managers and supervisors play in the effective implementation of flexible working. Overwhelmingly, participants expressed satisfaction with how their manager managed in a flexible working context, however managerial practices vary considerably across the ACTPS and within individual Directorates. The variation evident in participant accounts about their experiences with flexible working were largely attributed to their line managers’ perceptions of and support for flexible working and their approach to people management.
The research shows that flexible working exacerbates and accentuates existing managerial styles. When managers are focused on actively managing people, they are supportive and see the benefits of flexible working and actively work to enhance the benefits gained. Managers who are less focused on active people management struggle to optimise the benefits of flexible working.
The onus at the organisational level is emphasised by the research. Notably, the report recommends that the ACTPS consider more proactive strategies to support the development of managers. ANZSOG intends to support the ACTPS team that requested the research in interpreting and implementing findings.
This research project is an example of ANZSOG’s collaborative model of developing major research projects which uses our networks to address key contemporary issues in public administration, policy development and management, and produce research of practical assistance to governments and the communities they serve.
The Flexible working in the Australian Capital Territory Public Service (ACTPS) report has been published as part of ANZSOG’s Research Insights series, which aims to make ANZSOG-funded research projects freely available to academics and practitioners.