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Stephanie Foster, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Deputy Secretary Governance

17 December 2020

Exploring the Future of Work

Exploring the future of work with PwC Australia - conversation with Stephanie Foster (Department of PMC)

COVID-19 is rewiring a new world of work. In this episode we discuss the impact of the pandemic on the public sector, the prime minister’s perspective on returning to the workplace, and the importance of flexibility as we start to settle back into a new normal.


Episode transcript

Ben Hamer: Hello, I'm Ben Hamer, and you're listening to Exploring the future of work with Australia, the COVID-19 pandemic has launched so much of the country into a work from home experiment. 

It's a shift that has dramatically transformed workplaces. But what does all of this mean and what happens next?

In this podcast, we go in search of answers. In this episode, I chat with Stephanie Foster, who is a deputy secretary at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in Canberra, and heads up reform for the Australian Public Service. In our chat, we paint a picture for the future of work in the public sector and talk about the opportunity for some more considered risk taking to get there.

As part of this, we tackle several topics, including how the public sector was impacted by the pandemic and the prime minister's perspective on returning to the workplace, the importance of flexibility as we start to settle into this new normal and the real need for strong collaboration between the public and private sectors. You're exploring the future of work with Australia.

Ben Hamer: I'm joined now by Stephanie, and we can't not talk about COVID-19 when it comes to the future of work because it really has accelerated the whole thing. Can you talk a little bit about how the public sector workforce was impacted by the pandemic?

Stephanie Foster: I guess I saw three main impacts. One was the challenge we had to manage at an enterprise level because of the great variability across agencies, but also across teams and individuals. It depended so much on the sort of culture of an agency or the IT set up it had how well it was able to respond in the very early days and the nature of the work people were doing mattered a lot, as well. The impact of what I'd call non-work factors, was another really big issue. And if I were to call out just one, it would be the impact of home schooling and the way in which that pushed people to their limits. I certainly learned more about my staff in that period than I have ever before as I watched them try and juggle their commitments as parents and their commitments as workers.

And it's redefined for me forever, I think, the concept of work life balance and it used to break my heart when I would hear my staff push their bright faced little children away in the middle of a teleconference because the kids couldn't understand that the whole world was turned upside down too. 

And the third impact I saw was the way in which collaboration at a really extraordinary level became critical to our success. Everybody was focused on the main game. Nobody was pursuing their own agenda unless it was an agenda which was going to either keep Australians safe or safeguard our future prosperity.

Ben Hamer: You mentioned a lot about variability within the entire experience and you have a national workforce as well. Have you noticed that variability play out across different states and territories, particularly when you've got, say, on one end of the spectrum, Canberra, which comparatively was quite successful at containing the pandemic and the impact of that versus your hometown of Melbourne, which had a much longer and sustained lockdown period?

Stephanie Foster: Really, we tried to keep it simple. Our staff complied with the state directions about how people should work. And so for our folks in Melbourne through the second wave, they work from home unless it was critical for them to be in the office. 

And that meant that a whole lot of offices actually closed in Melbourne for that period. And it was only where we really had to maintain a public facing presence that we had people going to work. By contrast, once the first wave had sort of passed, we got as many people back to work in Canberra as we could. For us in prime minister and cabinet that means about 50 to 60 percent of our workforce, because that's the number that we can safely get back into the building. 

And by and large, we've allowed managers to manage that in a way that makes more sense for them and for their teams. The only principle that we put in place is that unless these’s a non COVID-19 related reason, a reason that was in existence, for example, before this year, that we really want to see everyone in the office some of the time. So to put a very loose kind of parameter around it, most people should be in the office two or three days a week so that we're not getting people becoming isolated, losing contact with their teams, etc.

Ben Hamer: I want to go a little bit further on the topic of their return to the office or the workplace, because we've been seeing a lot of private sector companies looking to implement these hybrid workplace models, moving into the future between work and home or otherwise work from anywhere policies. Yet in an address to some of the top federal public sector leaders, and I believe, yourself included, the prime minister seemed to be really putting forward this position around public servants coming back to the office.

Do you have any light you can shed on that and what your thoughts are on that approach?

Stephanie Foster: So what the prime minister said was he didn't think there was any substitute for people coming together to work, and he felt it was really important from a perspective of productivity from a social perspective, from a perspective of people's well-being. 

He did absolutely also note the importance of flexibility within that system. I think, you know, there's a lot of research and not all of it is consistent. But I am struck by, about what we don't know, I guess, because we've never done this before and some of the research which is indicating that over time when people aren't in a workplace and aren't regularly interacting with peers and aren't having casual interactions, that their networks start to shrink and that the number of people that they collaborate with and work with over time becomes smaller and smaller. 

And for me, that's not a healthy thing. I also worry about the longer term social impacts in the longer term impacts on well-being. And so I would not be comfortable seeing us move sort of holas bolus from an environment where we all used to work in an office pretty much to where we all pretty much don't, without really understanding what both the professional and the personal impacts of that are going to be. 

And that's why I kind of like the system that we are operating by necessity at the moment, where we have people essentially in a hybrid situation doing both, but where we are making real efforts to maintain connectivity and to maximize collaboration, because that's probably one of the things that I see as most important going into the future. And if we're going to muck with the ways we work, I think we need to do it deliberately and with a bit of an evidence base and to sort of trial things, test them, look at the impact and then and then reassess.

Ben Hamer: Absolutely. I mean, I've heard some people call 2021 the year of the pilot. It's such a catch 22. So in the thinking beyond research, we did at PwC, where we asked our people about their experiences working through COVID-19 and working from home. We heard on one hand that around one third of our people felt like they were less creative and innovative working in that remote environment, then on the flip side, we heard that there were some cohorts, females, more introverted people and more junior people who felt like working from home and collaborating in that virtual environment, almost level playing field. So then they also felt more comfortable to put forward an opinion or to speak up with someone more senior or whatnot in the virtual room.

And then we're also seeing, I guess at the state level, state governments encouraging a return to work more from that economic imperative. So if we think that New South Wales, where I'm from, for example, about 10 percent of the whole labour market in New South Wales are public servants.

So by encouraging that shift back, you're able to really achieve something at scale. Do you think that there is an economic imperative within that as well?

Stephanie Foster: Oh, absolutely. And I think more and more the sort of health, social and economic imperatives are coming together and need to be constantly balanced to make sure that we're keeping people safe and we're ensuring that their future is going to be strong and prosperous. They're not easy decisions, but it does, I think, reinforce the PM's view, I know he holds very strongly, that where we can return to a level of normalcy safely, then we should be doing so because it's good for the country, that's good for the economy.

Ben Hamer: We hear a lot about the importance of public/private cooperation. Can you talk a little bit around how the public sector could and should engage with the private sector to drive some of the reforms that you've spoken about?

Stephanie Foster: So my my dream in this regard is for there to be a genuine partnership between government and business, and what I see for very understandable reasons is public servants often being apprehensive about engaging with business, too scared to go and have a drink with someone from the private sector in case they could at some stage be questioned about that in Senate estimates and accused of giving contracts to their mates. 

When we know that the way to establish effective relationships and to get good outcomes is actually to build a personal relationship that underpins those interactions, to make it more of a relationship than a transaction. And so that means that we need to be prepared to take a little more risk, doing so sensibly, but in a way which we know will give us a better outcome. 

I think from a business perspective, there needs to be a bit more of an understanding of how the public service operates and an appreciation on both sides of what each of us brings to the table. When we set up the COVID-19 commission with a group of businessmen and women and they were operating with senior public servants, and for a little while it looked to me like it was a sort of a deficit model when the business people could only see what the public servants didn't understand about business, and the public servants could only see what the business men and women didn't get about our system.

And it just took a little while for both sides to realise that we were bringing different things to the table and that our policy was going to be so much better informed if we had a real sense of where business was struggling, what they needed from government to help them get through this period. 

And so we, as part of our reform program, working on initiatives and measures that will help build the confidence of public servants to engage effectively and make the experience for business of working with government more consistent and more effective.

Ben Hamer: And just to follow up on that, one of the things that we see around some public services, including APS, is this idea around rotations of senior executives between the public private sector, particularly if they may have had all of the majority of their experience in one of the other so that they can get an appreciation for the operating environment and all of the realities that come with that.

Do you see value in those sorts of programs?

Stephanie Foster: Enormous value. They're incredibly hard to pull off. It sounds simple, but there are all sorts of salary and superannuation and issues that we need to resolve. But they are actually resolvable, and The Public Service Commission has a program of secondments into the private sector, which when they work, we see just enormous value in. 

But I would have to be honest and say it's at an early stage and we need to put a whole lot more effort into that. We also need to do a lot more to support people coming from the private sector into the public sector at more senior levels. And again, the Public Service Commission is developing a bunch of programs of induction and support and buddying and all of those things to maximize the chance that people coming into our environment will actually succeed.

Ben Hamer: In light of what you just said, Stephanie, I do want to bring you back to something that you mentioned in 2017 where you said that “working in the public sector can be rules based, hierarchical and risk averse and that it needed to rethink this in order to attract top talent”. So do you think that we've shifted the dial far enough since then?

Stephanie Foster: So COVID-19 and the way we responded to COVID-19 has given us an enormous push along in the right direction. I think those things will always be a challenge in the public sector, in part because of the accountability that we need to have to the public, in part because of the way that ministerial accountability work. 

Ministers, as you know, face enormous risk. Every day, every time they speak publicly, every time they make decisions about policies or spending, they're really putting their careers on the line and the risk really does stop with them largely. And so public servants need to be really careful about what they do in supporting ministers in delivering on that and you know, everyone can tell you a war story about where a risk was realised and there were bad consequences for people. 

My observation is that those stories are actually few and far between. And what we do see in a time like COVID-19 is people do lean in and take risks and do things that they wouldn't normally do. And the hierarchy's kind of drift away a little bit. One of the guys in our organization who has been absolutely critical to supporting the prime minister with integrated data is someone at the most junior level of our executive, and he is an exceptional person. 

But nonetheless, it's terrific to see our system actually recognise that and use that person and allow him to operate freely across the system rather than within channels. And so what experiences like that prove is that we absolutely can operate differently. And if I go back to where I started with the reform program, what we're trying to do is bottle the things which make it possible and support and sustain those into the future.

Ben Hamer: And what are some of the things that might get in the way of being able to achieve that, some of the real key things you're hoping that the sector can overcome and address in the next five years or so?

Stephanie Foster: One of the things which will be critical to our success will be maintaining the extraordinary levels of collaboration that we've had. I think we will see a public service that will need to come together in informal groupings around problems and issues rather than operating within their departmental stovepipes. And there's so much in our system that sort of incentivizes working in, within your channel. 

And so we need to consciously change those incentives so that we do, we become a truly problem solving issues based enterprise. Another which I think will be fundamental to our success is really enhancing our use of and our integration of data. There are people who are fabulously proficient in that in the public service, but not nearly enough of us. 

And in five years, one of the things which is going to have to look different is that that's going to have to be second nature to pretty much everybody. And it's not just, as I said, the use of it, but it's being able to bring it together with other data, with other bits of information or intelligence so that we're providing government with holistic option sets rather than bits and pieces of the puzzle. 

And I often see at the moment where we have real success as a public service. it's where we've done that work before we get it up to the politicians rather than them having to do that integration at the top level. And I think the final thing which we're going to need to overcome or to capture is the really individualized approach both to people and to work and so I'm finding that I know my staff in a totally different way to the way I did in 2019 and 2020 has been the year for me of getting to know my folks in in a more total sense. 

And that allows them and me to operate much, much more effectively, equally tailoring the way we do our work. Working out what is best done when we're all together in the office and what is best done when people are at home in peace and quiet, we've never thought about our work that way before. We've never thought about how we optimize our effectiveness by how and where and with whom we operate.

Ben Hamer: Reflecting on everything that we've just spoken about, what would be the key takeaways that you would have the public sector leaders who are preparing for the future of work?

Stephanie Foster: I think I would stick with one primary thing, Ben, and that's to maintain a relentless focus on the outcome that we're trying to achieve, because if that's all that we're thinking about, that will drive all the sorts of behaviors that we've talked about, it will make you work with the people you need to do to get the best outcome. 

It will make you deliver in a flexible way. It will make you engage with risk. It will make you call on your business partners. And I'm not at all saying that we should throw away. Sensible processes which safeguard public money and all of those things, but that we should always be thinking, why am I doing this and what am I trying to achieve and how do I make it work rather than what can't I do? And I think if every public servant is thinking in that way, then we will have a truly high performing, humming workplace of the future.

Ben Hamer: What a great note to end on. So, Stephanie, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast. 

Stephanie Foster: It's been a pleasure, been great fun, thank you, Ben. 

Ben Hamer: Thanks for listening to this episode of Exploring the future of work with PwC Australia. Head over to where you’ll find our latest report ‘Thinking Beyond: How the Pandemic is Rewiring a New World of Work’. 

This podcast miniseries uncovers insights from industry experts so that together we can design a future that works for everyone. To make sure you don't miss a single episode, subscribe to this podcast series via Apple, podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcast from. And while you're there, feel free to give us a rating or review. 

And 2021 is already looking up because we have season two in the works for you. So stay tuned for that. My name is Ben Hamer and you've been listening to Exploring the future of work with PwC Australia. Thanks for joining us and goodbye for now.

Contact us

Dr Ben Hamer

Lead, Future of Work, PwC Australia

Tel: +61 437 159 517

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