Dave Penman: There’s huge demand from civil servants for greater flexible working. Departments should help make it happen

FDA research reveals many civil servants want to hold on to home working even after the coronavirus emergency. Ministers must catch up to where their workforce is
Photo: PA

By Dave Penman

12 Jan 2021

I remember watching a documentary on the 25th anniversary of The Troubles and it focused on the unlikely by-products of the conflict. It would be hard to describe them as positives, but like many historic events, the conflict necessitated innovation and brought about unforeseen change. Belfast had become a pioneer in new reconstructive knee surgery – for obvious reasons – and it was being applied elsewhere. There were other inventions in security apparatus which had been developed and applied to a domestic setting. You get the drift.

There has already been extraordinary innovation in the medical response to the pandemic that would not have been thought possible 12 months ago, with no doubt countless numbers to follow, whether products or practices. I now know how to wash my hands properly, an unknown I didn’t know about, so to speak.

No one could have predicted the impact that the first lockdown would have had on the approach to remote working. In the first few weeks we all just crossed our fingers, hoped the broadband would keep working and developed practices and processes as we went along. The civil service was already at the forefront of flexible working and many departments, like HMRC, were hard-wiring flexible working in to their long-term accommodation plans. But even the most progressive of employers were not prepared for 95% of the workforce to be working from home five days a week.

This is not just a public-sector story. Across the economy, employers were forced to develop IT solutions and invest in hardware on a scale that would have been unimaginable just weeks before. That it has worked so successfully will, I hope, be a source of research on employee engagement and organisational development for years to come. It helped that there was a national emergency, it drove a “can do” spirit and, of course, there was actually very little choice. Go remote or go under was essentially the choice, but it could not have worked without collaboration, engagement and the T word, trust, between managers and employees.

Not all jobs are suited to remote working and not everyone either has a suitable home environment or thrives in that setting. We quickly sought to support members and public services by switching our learning programme to fully online and developing sessions that would support the new working environment. From managing remotely, dealing with isolation and wellbeing, to switch-off sessions and desk yoga, we recognised that this new world of work is different. It has positives and negatives and needs a new approach from managers and employees.

'Clarity and meaningful engagement will be needed to harness the benefits for employers and employees, and this needs to start now'

It was clear from the reaction to the cack-handed way the government handled the return-to-workplace issue in the early autumn that many civil servants felt they were working as, if not more, productively from home. It felt like there had been a quiet revolution and ministers were simply being left behind, like luddites craving for a world that had already changed.

Just before Christmas, we surveyed members about working hours and patterns. Nearly 2,500 responded so it allows us to draw some pretty firm conclusions.

On the response to the pandemic, it will come as no surprise that 69% of respondents report working more hours than before, with a third working an additional five or more hours per week. Over 90% of those working from home report using some or all of their commuting time to work and most – 85% – feel they are at least as effective as they were in the office.

Despite all of this, nearly half feel that their work-life balance has improved. This may well be why an astonishing 97% of respondents said they wanted to retain the option of home working once it was no longer the default due to Covid. Of these, around 70% would want to work at least 60% of their working week from home. This perhaps is the most startling conclusion. If these aspirations are to become a reality for large swathes of the civil service, the majority of staff would want to spend the majority of their working week working from home.

This quiet revolution in working practices could fundamentally change the way we look at work for generations to come. Many can see upsides, but with over half the respondents reporting a worsening of their mental health during lockdown, there are also huge issues around isolation that need to be addressed.

Employers and employees will have views, which may not always concur, around what may necessitate a presence in the workplace. Clarity and meaningful engagement will be needed to harness the benefits for employers and employees and this is work that needs to start now as we look more hopefully towards the second half of 2021. Our survey makes it clear that there is a huge demand for greater flexible working. Making this a reality is inevitably going to shape a large part of the union and employers’ agenda over the coming months and years.

Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA union

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