Flexible by Design – harnessing lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic response

Access to flexible working has been essential to business continuity across the Queensland public sector (sector) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly when workplace attendance needed to be limited.

While many employees actively accessed flexible work arrangements prior to the pandemic, for some the opportunity to work differently was new. 

Across the sector, the benefits of flexibility for both employees and employers are well known. Flexibility is a powerful driver of some of our biggest workforce priorities, including:

  • talent mobility
  • gender equity
  • employee wellbeing
  • inclusion and diversity.

Sustaining and maximising the benefits of flexible work arrangements as part of a ‘new normal’ is now a focus for the sector, as it is for most contemporary organisations. To realise opportunities, the sector must harness lessons from the pandemic response and continue to evolve new ways of flexible working.

This quick read provides a snapshot of how the sector used flexible working during the pandemic, common challenges and opportunities for us all to consider in embedding flexible working practices in the workplace.

1. What changed during the pandemic response?

Where work was done 

  • In response to health directions, more employees than ever worked remotely:
    • The proportion of employees who telecommuted rose from 13% in 2019 to 38% in 2020.
    • From July 2020 to March 2021 there was a 38% increase in employees using distributed work centres.
  • When health directions relaxed, many employees sought hybrid working arrangements – a mix of workplace and remote working.

When work was done

  • Many agencies implemented temporary extensions to the spread of hours, with flexible start and finish times providing increased flexibility to:
    • support business needs
    • support employee needs – individual circumstances and personal preferences
    • contribute to reduced traffic congestion during peak periods
    • reduce movement of people in common areas in workplaces, such as foyers and lifts
    • allow parents and caregivers to manage work in ‘bursts’ around home schooling and other responsibilities.

How work was done  

  • The swift rollout and uptake of technology allowed employees to work regardless of location and enabled:
    • business continuity
    • ongoing collaboration
    • social interaction.
  • Technology similarly facilitated graduated return to workplaces:
    • supporting social distancing requirements
    • enabling collaboration in large numbers
    • enabling collaboration for hybrid teams
    • reducing the need for travel.

A change in mindset

Most importantly, the pandemic response saw a cultural shift, driven by the power of a global, society-wide response to a common and clearly defined problem. Without flexible work, the sector would not have been as responsive to rapid changes in the environment, and what was needed to ensure business continuity.

  • Traditional mindsets associated with the value of flexible work arrangements were challenged.
  • Safety and wellbeing were at the forefront of decision-making.
  • Flexible work was democratised, with senior leaders and employees alike working flexibly.
  • Thoughts about where work needed to be performed and what work was conducive to remote arrangements was challenged.

2. It wasn’t without challenges…

  • Increased flexible work arrangements can blur lines between work and home
    • Without clear boundaries between work and home some employees struggle to switch of – working longer hours, increasing feelings of fatigue and impacting on mental health.
  • Not all workers can access flexible work – creating inequity
    • Not all roles are conducive to remote working or flexible hours – impacting on the ability to offer the same opportunities to all employees.
  • Managing flexible work can present new challenges for managers
    • The rapid take up of new ways of working meant many sector managers, not practiced in managing flexible teams, had to learn on the run how to best support and supervise employees.
    • Managing remote and hybrid teams (workplace-based and remote workers) requires different skills:
      • mutual trust
      • managing by outcomes
      • purposeful interactions – including prioritising employee wellbeing checks, particularly for those not in the workplace
      • considered work program design and allocation
      • modelling the use of flexible work in management and senior roles.
  • Building and maintaining positive workplace culture can be difficult when people are not physically together
    • Incidental interactions are critical to good working relationships, and this can be harder to achieve in remote working environments.
    • Social bonding, learning, innovation and a sense of belonging all happens when employees are together.
    • Onboarding new employees or embedding new relationships can be more difficult in remote or hybrid working arrangements. 
  • Flexible work can lead to an over-reliance on technology to achieve outcomes
    • Zoom fatigue has been identified as the phenomenon of emotional and physical drain caused by video conferencing.
    • Internet connectivity and speeds vary and have a significant impact on the remote working experience.
    • Technology reliance can dehumanize the work experience, and lead to feelings of social isolation for some employees.
    • It is important to recognise that not all employees thrive when working remotely, or in alterative flexible arrangements.

3. But there were many benefits that we can harness…

  • Seeing leaders and executives successfully engage and participate in flexible work
    • Creating new norms of flexible work modelled by senior employees and executives will support increased uptake and greater gender diversity within this cohort.
  • Flexibility as a key enabler of productivity
    • More flexibility in how, when and where work is performed can be a key enabler of employee happiness, engagement, wellbeing and mental health and, as a result, productivity.
  • Trust as a central part of workplace culture
    • Employees respond well to working in an environment where they are trusted to deliver outcomes, regardless of how, when and where this happens.
  • Purposeful leadership and communication
    • Being cognisant of hybrid working arrangements can led to more purposeful and regular communication with employees from leaders.
  • Recognition that employees are not one-dimensional
    • Breaking down barriers between work and home lives can led to strengthening of relationships and better collaboration.

4. What’s next?

The sector can harness lessons from the pandemic response and continue to evolve new ways of flexible working, by:

  • finding flexibility within the flexibility 
    • engaging with employees to design ongoing flexible work arrangements while being mindful of the need for finding flexibility within the flexibility to maximise opportunities
    • balancing the social, collaborative, relational benefits of in person work with forms of flexible work.
  • prioritising employee health and safety, regardless of work location
    • ensuring remote work arrangements are fit-for-purpose and longer-term arrangements are formalised
    • supportive leaders are needed to help set expectations, manage workloads, and manage to outcomes.
  • supporting managers to maximise opportunities and minimise the challenges
    • recognising the leadership capabilities needed to optimise individual and team performance in new and different environments 
    • designing work to facilitate effective remote working
    • building skills in empowerment, trust and creating autonomy – checking in not checking up.

5. Want to improve flexible working experiences in you workplace?

Why not check out flexible work possibilities available across the sector, or resources to support flexible work conversations.

Flexible by Design is part of the Agile and flexible working strategic imperative within the 10 year human capital outlook – a different workforce future by design.

Contact

Name: 
Public Service Commission
Phone: 
07) 3003 2800
Email: 
commission.psc [at] psc.qld.gov.au

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