Woman in electric wheelchair working on laptop
According to Associate Professor Sue Williamson working from home had distinct impacts on different groups of employees. Source: Adobe Stock

A research study into the impacts of working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic has found that people with a disability gained the most, men were less able to collaborate, and employees with caring responsibilities particularly benefited from combining work and care while working at home.

The study, jointly conducted by UNSW Canberra's Public Service Research Group and CQUniversity, with support from the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), looked beyond employee productivity and asked employees about their perceived losses and gains whilst they worked from home during the pandemic.

More than 5,000 Australian Public Service employees responded to the survey, which was conducted in mid-2020 when it was mandatory for employees to work from home. Initial findings can be found in the report, Working During the pandemic: From resistance to revolution.

Working from home expanded rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic and whilst most people said they gained more than they lost during that time, some employee groups, including disabled employees and employees with caring responsibilities, benefitted more than others.

The study also found that overall, more than half of the total gains accrued from performance management. That is, employees felt more productive while working from home. However, women gained less than men in work processes and how work was undertaken. Women, however, gained more than men in relation to perceived beliefs and values, with results indicating increased support for working from home. Overall, lower-level employees and those employed on a casual basis gained less than higher level employees and those employed full time.

According to UNSW Canberra’s lead researcher, Associate Professor Sue Williamson, working from home had distinct impacts on different groups of employees.

“We found that men were less able than women to collaborate when working from home, so that finding suggests organisations should take steps to make sure men can access networks and colleagues,” Associate Professor Willamson said.

“Disabled employees particularly benefitted. We found that disabled employees believed that managers and organisations supported them when working from home. This suggests that organisations can benefit if they make working from home easier for this group of employees.”

Associate Professor Williamson said the findings are important because most research to date has only examined the impacts of working from home on employees as a large homogenous group, whereas this study has drawn out the impacts on smaller and more specific groups of employees, including women, those who are disabled, families, and by employment classification and status.

The research has also led to the development of a new index which measures the perceived losses and gains experienced during organisational change. The measurement index covers three main areas of change management: operational areas, performance management, and beliefs and values.

“Our study is unique because we have quantified the impacts of working from home in the areas of work processes, performance and support. The index we've developed can also be used by other researchers to examine working from home or hybrid working in organisations,” Associate Professor Williamson said.

Associate Professor Williamson says that it is important for organisations to constantly review who is benefiting and who may be losing when it comes to working from home to ensure employers are working towards gender equity in the workplace.

“As hybrid working becomes entrenched, these dynamics may be shifting, so organisations will need to be responsive to any changes. While women, families and disabled employees particularly benefit, it is important to consider the diverse make up of organisations to ensure conditions are equitable for all demographics,” Associate Professor Williamson said.

“As hybrid working becomes entrenched in organisations, organisations would do well to tailor associated working practices to specific groups of employees.”

The research team included members of the UNSW Canberra Public Service Research Group (PSRG), Associate Professor Sue Wlliamson, Associate Professor Twan Huybers and Professor Massimiliano Tani Bertuol, and CQ University's Associate Professor Linda Colley.

Media contact: Associate Professor Sue Williamson, Public Service Research Group, UNSW Canberra, sue.williamson@unsw.edu.au, 0419 498 575