Balancing our "new normal" in the workplace

The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on employment, economic activity, and our way of working have been far-reaching. As Queensland recently opened all domestic border restrictions and the State fast approaches 90% full vaccinated status, it is evident that we have entered the next chapter of living with the pandemic. However, the ramifications of the significant disruption to labour that forced approximately 40% of Australians into working at home in 2020 will continue to be a contentious topic for discussion.

The Hair v State of Queensland (Queensland Health) [2021] QIRC 422 case provides insight into the future of work at home considerations.

Ms Hair (the Appellant) is employed by the State of Queensland (Respondent) as Human Resources Advisor and acting Workplace Relations advisor at the West Moreton Hinterland Hospital and Health Service.

Ms Hair commenced working remotely on a full-time basis in March of 2020. In September 2021, Ms Hair submitted a request for flexible working arrangements to work remotely on a full-time basis from New South Wales as her partner was starting a job and they wished to relocate.

Her employer denied this request on the grounds that:

  • Elements of the HR Advisor role would be ‘difficult to do remotely’. Such elements included in-person attendance on interview panels, in-person assistance to clients to assist with coaching, preparing managers to do performance management, and giving performance feedback.
  • Client group feedback indicates that they value in-person support and guidance is provided from time to time.
  • WHM undertook a confidential online survey on how the Human Resources team can best support and engage with them – the results were consistent in that client groups want face-to-face contact.
  • The suggestion that Ms Hair could spend one week a month in Brisbane would not account for the unpredictable nature of quarantine restrictions in 2021.

Whilst many may consider that the arrangement was successful for the 18 months thus could continue, the circumstances of the lockdown were unforeseeable, and the stay-at-home measures were implemented as a temporary response to the public health and safety threat of COVID. As the pandemic settles into our daily lives, employees and employers across the globe are now in the tricky situation to ‘find the optimal blend of remote and in-person working.’

On another note, it is important that employers consider flexible working arrangement requests due to the significant changes remote working has implemented onto the workforce. However, in the case of Ms Hair, Queensland Health (the Respondent) must consider that allowing Ms Hair to work as per her request would set a precedent that cannot be accommodated in a fair and equitable manner across the team in which she works and would ‘inevitability increase the workload others.’

Ms Hair appealed the decision to the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission and the decision appealed against was confirmed. The Commission was satisfied that the Queensland Health’s (Respondent) decision demonstrates principles outlined in the Flexible Working Arrangements policy and that continued remote working was not in line with the emerging needs of the employer.

As we continue to look to the future, we ask ourselves, what will post-pandemic work life look like – back to the office, working from home, or a hybrid? With workplaces returning to a new normal, it is important, as both employees and employers, to understand your rights.

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