GOVERNMENT workers have largely returned to in-office work in the wake of a directive from the Prime Minister. However, this does not mean longstanding efforts to develop a work-from-home policy should now be abandoned.
Even before the pandemic, the State was looking at the issues surrounding work from home. Those considerations were fast-tracked out of necessity owing to the covid19 pandemic.
On Tuesday, Leader of Government Business in the Senate Clarence Rambharat suggested work on a policy would continue, and this is welcome news.
The State is examining questions relating to which functions of government might be more conducive to work from home, what reskilling and retooling of workers might need to be done, the issue of adjustments to terms and conditions of employment, and the need to review organisational structures and procedures, among other areas.
The Government, as the largest employer, should consult with private-sector employers on all these areas. While individual organisations will have specific needs, standardisation in some areas could be useful.
Though some trade unions reacted to Dr Rowley’s directive last week by expressing health and safety concerns, in truth the coming work environment will not be defined by a choice between just one mode of work or another.
Even as people have returned to the office, a hybrid work situation, in which some functions are done from home and others in-office, is destined to become our mode of operation down the road.
This is because of the well-documented productivity benefits in relation to work from home, which allows people in this country to save time wasted commuting and being stuck in traffic jams. Research done internationally has also suggested some workers simply work better at home.
The most pressing reason for keeping work from home in play, however, relates to the need to keep covid19 (and any future coronavirus) in check by reducing the number of people in the workplace.
At this time, the Government’s directive has only been made possible by widespread familiarity with sanitisation protocols, the availability of vaccines and the waning of the deadlier variants of concern. There may come a time, however, when this situation changes and a shifting of gears will be speedily required.
Which is why it would be useful to have at least some essential aspects of workplace life handled remotely to help buffer economic activity from future disruption.
Ultimately, while government and private-sector employers should work together, it is also the case that workers, too, should have a say.
Not only should they be a part of efforts to shape policies (and there need to be proper surveys done in relation to the comfort levels of workers in relation to various aspects of hybrid operations) but perhaps individual workers should, where there is no risk to their ability to do their job, be given the freedom to choose which they prefer: the home office or the “real” office.