Will Covid be a game-changer for flexible work?

The government’s ‘go hard and go early’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic required public sector and community organisations to shut their workplaces and redeploy their workforces. These organisations were charged with reorganising staff to deliver essential and, for some, enhanced public services, while containing the spread of the virus and minimising the risk of transmission. Delivering services in Covid-times meant the introduction of a range of alternative and flexible work arrangements, including working from home (WFH). For many, their homes became workplaces, and managers were tasked with managing the health, safety, and well-being of their staff remotely, at a time of heightened stress and uncertainty. This represented an extreme and unprecedented set of changes to the way we work, but also a once in a generation opportunity to learn from people’s experiences of working during a global pandemic.

These enforced changes disrupted and altered the work arrangements of the 75,000 members of the Public Service Association Te Pūkenga Here Tikanga Mahi (PSA), many of whom were classified as essential services for the purposes of the pandemic response. In mid-April 2020, the PSA, in collaboration with CLEW, surveyed their membership to capture the impact of the COVID pandemic on their work. In response, 16,454 workers, representing 21 percent of PSA members, reported on the impact of alternative work arrangements on their work, work status, working conditions, health, and wellbeing.

New Zealand’s national emergency response to the pandemic was a sector-wide test of the public sector’s business continuity measures, and a naturally-occurring experiment in alternative work arrangements. Actions taken by the public sector and their workforces meant that most of those surveyed (95 percent) continued to work under a range of working arrangements during the lockdown. However, for a small proportion of workers (5 percent), the need to self-isolate and/or care for others in their household, or having no access to their workplace, meant they were unable to work and/or work from home.

Workers’ ‘ability to work’ and ‘ability to work from home’ during the restrictions varied by occupation with many Community Care & Support Workers and Library Assistants ‘unable to work’ during the lockdown due to the nature of their work and closure of their workplaces. In addition to this, WFH arrangements were not accessible to everyone. For example, Figure 1 shows that  Executive Assistants were more likely to WFH than General Administrators, whereas just 35.5 percent of Court Officers/ Registers were able to work remotely during the lockdown. Again workers reported that the nature and organisation of their work, or lack of resources prevented them from working remotely. Analysis of data (unpublished) from a 2019 survey of the same population (n=27, 291) shows the top 6 occupations with an ability to work from home are male dominated (>60% male) and the bottom 16 are female dominated (>60% female).

Figure 1: Ability to work from home during level 4 restrictions by occupational group

Ability to work from home during level 4 restrictions by occupational group

Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed worked from home during level 4 restrictions and, for many, WFH was a new experience. For most, working from home meant doing the same work and working the same hours. However, 24.5 percent worked fewer hours , either because there was less work available to them, or because they needed to care for others; and 11.5 percent worked longer hours.

For most, working at home occurred in a shared living space, while just over a third (34.2 percent) had access to a separate dedicated workspace. Employers provided laptops, phones, headsets, cameras, and communication software, whereas employees were more likely to source their desktop computer, desk, chair and cover their internet and telecommunication costs. Staff indicated they needed additional technology, greater clarity of work expectations and more communication with their teams and managers to help them WFH effectively.

Organisations may be reluctant to introduce WFH arrangements due to productivity concerns. However, during the lockdown restrictions public sector employees reported little impact on their productivity, despite little lead in time to plan or prepare to WFH  – two-thirds of workers assessed their productivity at over 80 percent, while 31 percent reported no drop in their productivity levels while WFH.

Overall, what effect did WFH in a national emergency have on the work and home lives of public service workers?

Most reported that working from home had a positive effect on their work. In particular, 7 out of  10 were ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with their ability to: ‘focus for long periods of time’, ‘think creatively and innovatively’, ‘collaborate with others’, ‘get timely information from their manager’ and ‘keep up to date with developments in their organisation’. While 9 out of 10 were ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with their ‘ability to contact colleagues when necessary’, 27 percent felt that WFH during the lockdown led to ‘reduced cooperation between colleagues’ or ‘made it harder to keep motivated’ – and for some, WFH in level 4 restrictions negatively impacted their general mental health.

WFH experiences varied according to workers’ caring responsibilities and household size. Those with caring responsibilities reported challenges in ‘focusing for extended periods of time’ and in ‘thinking creatively or innovatively’ but were more satisfied with their ‘ability to communicate and collaborate with work colleagues’ and ‘access work resources‘, when compared to those without caring duties. Those living in households of 7 or more people, found it ‘easier to communicate’, ‘collaborate with their colleagues’, and ‘access files and resources’ but noted greater challenges in ‘focusing and thinking creatively’. The main negative experience that workers noted while WFH during the lockdown was ‘the loss of social and professional interaction’ and ‘reduction in mutual learning’. People caring for others reported slightly less negative experiences of WFH in lockdown, highlighting the benefits of flexible work arrangements in enabling those with caring responsibilities to manage competing demands during a crisis.

Likewise, for most WFH during the lockdown had a positive effect on their personal lives. For example, over 6 out of 10 people agreed that WFH gave them: ‘more control over their working environment’; ‘more independence’; and ‘more time for themselves’; and between 7 and 8 out of 10 agreed that WFH: ‘reduced the stress of commuting’; ‘enabled them to save money’; ‘gave them more time for their families’; ‘more flexibility’; and ‘enabled them to feel personally safer’. Again workers with caring responsibilities had less positive experiences around ‘control, concentration, and productivity’, and more positive experiences relating to ‘flexibility, stress, and safety’ when compared against those with no caring responsibilities. Similarly, people living in larger households were found to have more positive experiences while WFH than those in single-person households.

Workers also reported positive impacts on their well-being, although for some work anxiety and fatigue was a factor in their lives during that time. In this instance, single-person households reported better well-being outcomes than those in larger households and, those with caring responsibilities had significantly poorer well-being outcomes than those without caring responsibilities – highlighting the pressure and variable health outcomes of WFH while caring under emergency conditions. Most people had the support they needed from their employer, 77 percent were satisfied with their employer’s support for their health and safety. Those who were not satisfied were mainly concerned about the provision of protective equipment or the inadequacy of equipment and communication.

In summary, at a time when the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic severely affected organisations’ ability to operate, WFH enabled the New Zealand public sector to provide critical services and preserve jobs, while safeguarding the health and safety of their workforce. For most public sector workers, WFH was a new, productive, and generally positive experience, ensuring personal and financial stability. However, for others, especially those working in contracted care and support services, the closure of their workplaces, lack of resources, and caring responsibilities prevented them from working and/or WFH - highlighting a need to assess jobs and tasks and, where feasible redesign work or aspects of jobs in a way that untethers it from workplaces, enabling equal access to flexible work arrangements.

This research reveals that mandating WFH as a temporary health measure results in variable outcomes for workers according to the nature of their work and occupation, along with their living and caring circumstances. Whereas the mutual benefits of WFH may now be evident for organisations, it is also clear that WFH can lead to a range of challenges, including a blurring of work boundaries and tendency towards ‘work without end’ (ILO (2018)). Understanding the psychosocial hazards of WFH and providing greater clarity of work expectations and guidelines on workers' ability to ‘disconnect from work’ will provide organisations with greater insight into the health, safety, and wellbeing challenges that people face during crises.

While the implementation of WFH was a temporary work arrangement introduced in response to COVID-19, it provides the public sector with an opportunity to gather insights to the experiences and challenges of WFH and to reassess the rights and responsibilities of parties in this regard.

Authors: Noelle Donnelly (CLEW), Kirsten Windelov and Andrea Fromm (PSA), and Briar Irving (Health Quality & Safety Commission New Zealand).

The survey that informed this article was conducted by the PSA in collaboration with CLEW researchers: Dr Noelle Donnelly (CLEW) Dr Sarah Proctor-Thomson (TEU) and Briar Irving (Health Quality & Safety Commission New Zealand).