Working remotely

Guidance
Helping agencies during the COVID-19 pandemic prepare and facilitate remote working arrangements, including working from home where it is practicable to do so.

Introduction

The public sector is open for business and, while we are continuing to deliver essential services to the community, the way we do business is changing. Employers need to ensure their workplace is ready for the changes ahead. They should facilitate flexible working arrangements for employees, including working from home where it is practicable to do so.

Directors general and CEOs have responsibilities under the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984 for providing a safe place of work which extends to any approved remote workplace including the home offices of employees who are working from home. 

As a general guide, agencies should:

  • ensure they can continue to deliver essential services and Government priorities under remote working arrangements
  • have a specific response plan in place so that, if there is a Government decision to close a workplace, agencies can quickly activate alternative ways of working
  • be pragmatic when considering the risks associated with remote working, and develop flexible, practical processes and practices
  • consider how work could be redesigned to suit remote working arrangements
  • refer to the latest Public Sector Labour Relations circulars which outline matters such as working from home and leave arrangements.

Setting clear expectations

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It is important to set clear expectations with employees up front to ensure work priorities, deliverables and performance measures are understood.

Managers should determine arrangements in discussion with employees including:

  • hours of work, considering stakeholder and client needs
  • role of each individual team member – who is responsible for doing what
  • key outputs and deliverables along with clear timeframes
  • how employees continue to meet legislative and policy requirements such as confidentiality and recordkeeping when working away from the office.

Expectations should be documented in accordance with agency policy and performance management arrangements. The agency may need to review its performance management arrangements to ensure they are suitable for remote working.

Employers still need to comply with industrial instrument provisions such as span of hours, time and wage records and penalties when facilitating working from home arrangements.  Instruments may also contain provisions for employees to work outside the normal hours of work to accommodate caring responsibilities.

It should be specifically noted that security and privacy of information are critical. Consideration should be given to the way both electronic and physical records are handled, and this should be discussed early on with employees. 

Establishing support requirements

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To work from home or remotely, employees may need additional or different support from areas such as ICT and human resources.

When setting up remote working arrangements, consider, discuss with employees individually and clearly document:

  • agreed support and communications protocols and systems
  • the work environment, whether it is a home office or kitchen table
  • technology platforms available for use remotely
  • how to log on to the network and complete duties (if the network is required)
  • access protocols and contact lists to contact someone if they experience technology or human resource challenges
  • how to manage recordkeeping requirements including access, uploading, storage, and sharing of documents
  • information privacy, security and confidentiality requirements
  • safety risk assessments that need to be completed
  • who is responsible for supplying and maintaining equipment
  • procedures for claiming any costs associated with working remotely.

Working from home and caring responsibilities

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Employees wishing to combine working from home while having some responsibility for supervising a child or children should discuss their individual circumstances with their managers.

If an employee is not the primary carer, for example another adult is at home to supervise a child or children, there is no reason why they should not work from home provided all other requirements are met.

If an employee is the primary carer for a child or children who are relatively independent and do not require active supervision and care, performing work from home at the same time may be possible.

Working from home is not appropriate at any time when an employee is the primary carer for a child or children requiring active supervision and care. 

In this situation, employees and their managers can consider a change to the ordinary span of hours if the applicable industrial instrument allows it.  A changed span of hours can allow an employee to perform work from home earlier or later than usual, allowing them to care for children during ordinary working hours.

Managers considering requests of this kind should consider (among other things):

  • employee wellbeing and need for recreation
  • whether less than full time work hours can be performed to allow for a reasonable work-life balance – noting this may result in reduced take home pay
  • the need for arrangements to be treated as temporary and regularly reviewed to ensure the employee still wishes to participate and is able to manage the competing demands on their time; and the operational and business requirements of the agency can still be met.

Occupational safety and health

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Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe working environment, as far as is practicable, including where employees work from home. 

Safe Work Australia has information to assist managers minimise safety and health risks.  It advises that key risks include:

  • workstation setup
  • work hours and breaks
  • physical environment such as temperature, lighting, electrical safety, hygiene
  • psychosocial risks such as isolation, reduced social support from managers and colleagues, fatigue and online bullying.

Agencies should:

  • provide guidance on what is a safe home office environment including what a good workstation set up looks like and how to keep physically active
  • require employees to familiarise themselves and comply with good ergonomic practices including by conducting a workstation self-assessment
  • require employees to undertake regular inspection of their work area to ensure it is safe, and they do not use any items or equipment that are faulty or damaged, nor attempt to repair any items unless authorised to do so
  • encourage employees to alternate between sitting, standing and walking throughout the day to avoid the adverse effects on health associated with prolonged sitting (for example, walking or standing when making phone calls)
  • appoint a contact person in the agency who employees can talk with about any matters.

Mental health support

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    Agencies should take steps to support mentally healthy workplaces even when employees are working remotely.

    While these are challenging times, managers can help support the confidence, motivation, commitment and wellbeing of employees by:

    • focusing on positive messages
    • recognising great contributions and innovations 
    • getting the team involved in building positive relationships and team cohesion
    • highlighting the importance of everyone’s work to overall goals.

    Employees may feel anxious, lonely or stressed when transitioning to working from home or another location. Managers are encouraged to acknowledge this risk and provide and advise employees of appropriate support services including:

    Regular and effective communications

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    Working remotely can be a culture shock for some employees who value social interactions with their colleagues.

    For managers, working remotely increases the importance of staying connected and having regular communication with employees. They should set up regular agreed contact and encourage team members to keep in virtual contact with each other for support.

    Managers should work with employees to agree on:

    • communicating with each other whether by phone, email, video conferencing or instant messaging (for example, Microsoft Teams, Slack and Skype – check which platforms are approved for use in the agency)
    • regular team catch-ups or more formal meetings to maintain team cohesion and update each other on the progress of work duties; good practice suggests twice weekly short meetings, one at the beginning of the week and one at the end of the week but this depends on the nature of your work
    • timeframes to respond to phone calls and emails (or other agreed communications methods such as those described above).

    Building a culture of tolerance, integrity and trust

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      Managers should prioritise time to communicate and provide support to employees individually and as a team. They should try different ways of communicating and continue to deliver work when working remotely.

      Regular conversations with employees help to identify challenges and issues. It should be acknowledged that the transition to remote working arrangements may be a difficult time for some, and managers should start from a position of trust. Encouraging open dialogue, committing and delivering on commitments, communicating, listening and responding are all factors that contribute to a healthy and trusting working relationship.

      When making communication arrangements, managers should:

      • discuss with the team and agree on ground rules for interaction and communications
      • discuss with the team the agency’s working from home and related policies
      • remind employees that obligations under the Public Sector Management Act 1994, Code of Ethics and relevant codes of conduct, and other workplace policies and procedures continue to apply when working remotely
      • discuss expected behaviours of employees that are aligned to the agency’s values and code of conduct.

      Tips for managers

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      Remember, in times of stress, people experience mental overload so making decisions can become difficult. The brain may become foggy and only parts of information may be absorbed.

      In response, you can:

      • simplify decision-making processes
      • delegate decisions to the team
      • avoid micro-managing and focus on outcomes
      • empower your team to support what you need to achieve
      • reduce the email trail to those who really need to know.

      Be mindful of workload distribution as some of our staff may have a lot of work to do and some may not have enough to do.

      You should:

      • identify lower priority activities your team can stop doing now
      • reallocate higher priority work across the team based on their skillsets
      • invite team members to step in and support each other to deliver on expected outcomes.

      Staff may be anxious and have increased stress levels so advise them of the support available to them.

      You can help your staff by:

      • checking in regularly with team members who are working from home
      • setting up buddy systems for team members to check in on each other and provide support
      • providing your team with contacts for your agency’s employee assistance program and the mental health links listed above.

      10 ideas for managing remote teams

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      1. Agree on ways of working

      Make sure every team member is clear about how they work together remotely, how to keep each other updated and how frequently this is. You may want to agree some remote working etiquette, for example dress code if you are using video conferencing.

      2. Focus on the big picture but remain flexible

      Remind your team about where their work fits into the bigger picture. Be mindful that some of the team may not be able to carry out their usual functions so consider how they can contribute to team outputs.

      3. Set expectations and trust the team

      Be clear about expectations and trust the team to get on without micro-managing. Keep the focus on outcomes and delivery of output, not the activity.

      4. Make sure the team has the support and equipment they need

      This includes any coaching they might need to use online systems and work remotely. Keep your calendar visible and maintain a virtual open door.

      5. Have a daily virtual team check-in

      This is essential for keeping connected as a team, check in on each other’s wellbeing and keep work activities on track. It doesn’t need to be long but regularity is the key.

      6. Keep the rhythm of regular one on one and team meetings

      This maintains a sense of structure and continuity for all.

      7. Share information and encourage the team to do the same

      Opportunities to pick up information in passing are more limited when working remotely. Share appropriate updates and learnings from other meetings and projects - and invite team members to do the same.

      8. Tailor your feedback and communications

      People can be more sensitive if they are feeling isolated or anxious so take this into account when talking and writing. Communicate regularly, not just when things go wrong. Let the team know when they’re doing a good job.

      9. Listen closely and read between the lines

      Not being in the same room means that you don’t have extra information like body language and tone to get the sense of what people are thinking and feeling. Hone in on what’s not being said and ask questions to clarify.

      10. Foster relationships and wellbeing

      Make time for social conversations and encourage team members to schedule in virtual coffee breaks and opportunities to talk. This increases rapport and eases communication between people who may not meet often. It also helps reduce feelings of isolation.

      Page reviewed 15 April 2020