1001.0 - Australian Bureau of Statistics -- Annual Report, Report on ABS performance in 2015-16  
Latest ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 13/10/2016   
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SPECIAL ARTICLE

A FLEXIBLE WORKING ENVIRONMENT

In 2013 the ABS embarked on the implementation of a flexible working environment strategy, which enables employees and their line management to decide where and when work is done.

The goal was to increase employee satisfaction and reduce costs while at least maintaining productivity, and ideally improving it. Cost savings would come from lower rents due to smaller offices. A more pleasant and productive office environment and the opportunity to do more work from home would lead to increased employee satisfaction. Productivity would come from enhanced collaboration.

Three years later, the ABS can claim to have delivered on these objectives.

The key elements of the strategy are:

  • incremental implementation, office by office, starting with a large scale, but low risk, pilot projects
  • effective employee engagement
  • new office spaces that support ’activity-based working’ – a mix of furnishings and room sizes to support different types of work and sharing of space
  • information technology that enables mobility
  • teleworking policies that allow many staff to regularly work one day a week, or more, from home
  • training and education.

ADELAIDE OFFICE PILOT PROJECT

The ABS Adelaide office, with a staff of 200, was the first office to embrace a flexible working environment. In 2014, the opportunity arose to sub-let one under-utilised floor of the building. The saving from reduced rent was applied to a refit of the remaining two floors, with a cash payback in eighteen months. The teleworking element of the pilot drew on lessons learnt from an earlier trial in the Melbourne office where staff were encouraged to work from home at least one day a week. With only two years remaining on the lease, Adelaide office employees were assured that the new arrangement could, and would, be abandoned if the new approach didn’t work for managers and staff.

It was agreed that the Adelaide pilot would be a success if two conditions were met: staff had to prefer the new office arrangement to the old one, and management had to be satisfied that the office was at least as productive.

The new office design comprised 164 standard workstations for general use and a range of meeting rooms, collaborative spaces and non-standard work-points. Staff no longer had dedicated desks nor did Directors (EL2s) have offices. Mobility was enabled by issuing laptops to all staff, with docking stations at each workstation. Work health and safety considerations were at the forefront of these flexible working initiatives.

The physical change to the office needed to be accompanied by behavioural change. Each workgroup was assigned to a home zone, within a ’neighbourhood’ of similar workgroups, that provided staff with a group of workstations. The new environment required staff to identify and occupy a vacant workstation in their home zone or choose a work-point that met their work requirement at that time. All personal belongings and work tools were stored in individual lockers and accessed daily. Workpoints were cleared of all personal items either when desks were vacated for extended periods of time, or at the end of the day, with items returned to lockers.

The Adelaide office pilot was championed by the Adelaide Head of Office. Operational responsibilities were overseen by the Flexible Working Environment Project Director and divided between two working groups:

  1. National Property Working Group, with overall responsibility for implementing the fitout process
  2. Adelaide Office Working Group, with responsibility for consultation and planning of all facets of working in the newly refitted office.

Innovatively for the ABS, many responsibilities and decisions were delegated to the Adelaide Office Working Group whose members were predominantly non-managerial staff. This resulted in significant empowerment and buy-in by all Adelaide office staff.

Throughout the process, the Good Work Design ’Why’ and ’What’ principles were foremost in the ABS planning and implementation of the change. In particular:

  • maintaining a physically and mentally safe work environment
  • providing physical equipment and information to allow staff and their line management to work in the new environment in a safe manner
  • allowing staff ongoing opportunities to discuss how the changes affected them and their team, and having local management empowered to adjust work while maintaining business outputs.

The key to the successful implementation of a flexible working environment in the Adelaide office was the empowerment by senior management of the two working groups. This was accompanied by regular communication that included:
  • written updates to all staff in the Adelaide office
  • feedback and consultation with all workgroups by their Adelaide Office Working Group representative
  • regular ‘town hall’ meetings where senior managers explained progress in the strategic context and staff were able to question why certain decisions were made.

Being a pilot project it was expected the outcome would not be perfect and that lessons learned would be applied to the fitouts of the other ABS offices. Two separate evaluations were conducted to determine the degree of success of the project:
  1. an Adelaide office staff perception evaluation conducted internally in two stages: upon occupation of the activity-based work environment and six months later
  2. a facilities usage survey conducted across months two to seven of occupation.

Evaluation of changing work practices and work program outputs commenced at the beginning of the pilot and were monitored throughout. Results of the evaluation were used to adjust the physical environment of the office, use of spaces and management of team logistics with increased teleworking.

The evaluation indicated that most were generally happy with the process and the outcome of an improved work environment. The main concern was the ergonomics of some of the furniture and the need for staff to learn how to set up their work environment correctly each time they moved. To overcome this, an education campaign was run initially, with six-monthly reminders about safe use of the environment.

The transition was not easy and staff overcame many challenges – including maintaining wellbeing while working beside a construction zone, and developing new ways of working in an unfamiliar environment.

The lessons learned from the Adelaide office have been used to inform the rollout of flexible working environments in other ABS offices. Most importantly, the enthusiasm of Adelaide staff about their new office saw other offices keen to embrace the new approach.


APPLYING LESSONS LEARNED TO OTHER OFFICE ROLLOUTS

Lessons learned from Adelaide were next applied in Brisbane then Melbourne. These were followed by the establishment of a brand new office in Geelong and relocation of the ABS office in Melbourne.

Since the Adelaide pilot, many refinements have been made to both the process and the office environments.

Additional training has been built into the flexible working environment implementation strategy including coaching workshops; enhanced change management training; e-learning modules for managers and staff on the technology, security and physical and psycho-social health and safety impacts of teleworking; and additional activity-based work documentation.

Occupational therapists were employed over the first week of opening the new Brisbane office to assist staff in adjusting to the new activity-based work settings.

All other ABS offices are expected to be operating in a fully flexible working environment by the end of 2017.


TRAINING TO SUPPORT STAFF

To support the move to a flexible working environment a number of compulsory e-learning modules have been developed to assist staff transitioning to the new way of working. The modules include:

  • Working in a Virtual Environment – how to work successfully as a team when team members are geographically dispersed
  • Managing in a Virtual Environment – how to manage a team successfully when team members are geographically dispersed
  • Teleworking and Security – covering ABS security requirements and applying ABS security policy when teleworking
  • Teleworking in Practice – practical teleworking issues and hints and tips on how to telework successfully
  • Transitioning to Flexible Working Arrangements – providing staff with a range of resources and experiences to assist in transitioning to flexible working arrangements
  • Work Health and Safety: Telework Considerations – covering physical and psycho-social considerations that may affect the health and wellbeing of an employee while teleworking.

BENEFITS

The introduction of a flexible working environment has allowed the ABS to move away from fixed headcount to workstation ratios of 1:1 to an average of 1:0.8. For the new Brisbane and Melbourne offices, this represents an annual saving of $770,000 per annum. By the end of 2018–19, when all nine ABS properties have transitioned to the new environment, the annual property operating savings are expected to total more than $5.5 million.

In addition to this cost saving, employee satisfaction with access to flexible arrangements is well above APS averages.

The use of lockers and shared workpoints is resulting in reduced use of paper and fewer breaches of the ABS’s clear desk security policy.