Hybrid work has gone from the new normal to business as usual

Public servants have embraced remote and hybrid working arrangements, but research suggests their managers can take steps to help them be more effective

More people are embracing working from home to better manage work and life responsibilities. New research shows that while working from home is now entrenched in the Australian Public Service (APS), improvements are needed in how managers support their staff to take full advantage of hybrid work.

The research team, led by UNSW Canberra academic Sue Williamson, has developed a resource for APS managers, including tips to better support employees. The latest study is based on interviews with more than 80 APS middle managers and senior executives across 37 agencies. It is the third in a series of studies from the research team examining working from home in the APS. The research team comprised academics from UNSW Canberra, Edith Cowan University and Charles Sturt University.

Associate Professor Williamson said working from home and hybrid working are now fully embedded in most Australian workplaces, including the APS. “Hybrid working has transitioned from ‘the new normal’ to ‘business as usual’ and, despite recent pushes from some business groups and property developers to encourage staff back into the office, working from home is here to stay,” Associate Professor Williamson said.

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Despite business groups and property developers encouraging staff back into the office, UNSW Canberra academic Sue Williamson says working from home is here to stay. Photo: supplied

“Hybrid working benefits staff and it can no longer be viewed as a temporary workplace adjustment. In fact, our research shows that directives to return to the office lead to resentment among staff.”

Hybrid working lifts productivity

One of the key findings of the study related to productivity. Working from home has been shown to increase productivity. Of the managers that specifically referenced productivity in their responses, almost 70 per cent said productivity had increased thanks to hybrid working and the other 30 per cent said it remained the same.

Managers reported switching to a productivity culture rather than an attendance culture, where outcomes were valued above hours of attendance or where the work was completed. “This is a key shift in focus for managers and their staff, one that empowers employees to have agency over their own work,” Associate Professor Williamson said.

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“Broadly, employees are being treated as responsible adults who are trusted to complete their work. A key problem in current APS workplaces is that the way work and outcomes are measured has not adapted to reflect the new way of working. One-third of the respondents said there had been no changes to how output was measured and, therefore, wasn’t being captured holistically. It is crucial this is examined and changed across the APS to better reflect the work public servants are doing.”

Experiment with different ways of working

The study also found that the APS differs substantially from the private sector in that the type of work undertaken by employees does not change depending on location. In other workplaces, the research indicates that staff will complete tasks requiring deep concentration at home and more routine tasks will be done in the office. The majority of managers surveyed in this study said there had not been a noticeable change in how and where work was completed.

Associate Professor Williamson said APS managers should encourage their staff to experiment with different ways of working to find the most effective approach for them. “Managers should have meaningful discussions with their staff about the types of work best undertaken at home or in the office. Otherwise, they risk missing opportunities to innovate within their teams and not reach their peak performance,” she said.

Productivity, engagement and wellbeing are enhanced through a new approach to making workplaces ‘worksocials’.jpg
Productivity, engagement and wellbeing are enhanced through a new approach to making workplaces ‘worksocials’. Photo: Adobe Stock

Making workplaces “worksocials”

One of the important changes identified in the research is that workplaces could almost be relabelled as ‘worksocials’. The research report said organisations and managers have realised the need to maintain connections and employee engagement and do this through increasing social opportunities. This is a major benefit for organisations, teams, and individuals, as hybrid working is ‘business as usual’.

Developing social cohesion in the workplace was seen as a departmental-wide responsibility by some, according to the research. Teams were also becoming more social. “Many managers told us about having morning teas and team lunches on the days when employees were in the office,” the report said. “Yet others maintained connectivity online, and had monthly or fortnightly face-to-face events. Others incorporated social time into meetings. They were advised to do this in training; this was to replace ‘water cooler chats’.”

Learn more: The Hybrid Work Leadership research lab

There was a general consensus that being in the office facilitated sociability and it was also beneficial for wellbeing checks. The benefits of workplace sociability are clear, according to the research report, which said productivity, engagement and wellbeing are enhanced through this new approach to making workplaces ‘worksocials’.

Six hybrid working tips for managers

The research report gave managers six tips for managing hybrid working environments and teams.

1. Policies: Organisations will need to review their working-from-home policy to remove any mandates requiring minimum hours of in-person attendance, in line with Australian Government policy.

2. Productivity and performance: Agencies may need to review performance and monitoring systems, informed by diverse qualitative and quantitative data sources/analytics, to more holistically measure outcomes, as well as output.

3. Ways of working: APS managers are encouraged to engage in meaningful discussions with their teams about what type of work is best undertaken at home and in the office. Encourage teams to experiment with ways of working and workspaces. APS managers are encouraged to provide teams with high levels of flexibility and autonomy to enable successful hybrid working. APS managers are encouraged to engage in open discussions with their teams about what autonomy and trust look like in terms of behaviours in a hybrid working environment. Senior leaders are encouraged to consider the amount of time managers and supervisors are required to be in the office and the associated expectations.

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4. Resource and support requirements: Managers should give conscious consideration to the resources and support they and their teams need to function effectively as hybrid teams. APS managers are encouraged to practice intentional leadership, considering time and place of work, capabilities of team members, and opportunities for team members’ growth and development.

5. Managerial capability and practices: APS managers are encouraged to collaboratively and critically investigate potential work process changes that could enhance performance and engagement. The key to success in such an action is approaching it with genuine curiosity and openness to new ways of working. Managers and their teams should engage in conversations about the social and connectivity benefits of time spent together in the workplace and develop plans to facilitate this in a manner that is attentive to performance and wellbeing outcomes. Employee wellbeing should feature in all conversations managers have with their teams about ways of working. Bespoke training on managing hybrid teams for performance and wellbeing outcomes should be readily available for managers at all levels.

6. Career development and visibility: Managers should give deliberate consideration to ensuring career development opportunities are not being impacted by where their employees undertake work, and monitor development opportunities to prevent proximity bias.


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