Ahead of this week’s lifting of Covid guidance encouraging home working wherever possible, Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay kickstarted a new wave of civil service bashing with his call for departmental officials to “lead the way” in a return to office working.
Barclay said he had tasked departments across government with ensuring their offices can return quickly to full occupancy and urged the agreement of “clear ministerial expectations” with permanent secretaries to “get people back to normal, pre-pandemic arrangements”.
The Cabinet Office minister also praised civil servants for “managing the challenges of the past two years”. However, his announcement still prompted a fresh round of criticism of civil servants’ remote-working arrangements in some sections of the media. Former Conservative Party leader and ex-work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith suggested officials had enjoyed a “flexi-holiday” for two years.
Unions reacted with anger to Barclay’s comments and the response they generated, pointing out that officials had worked hard through the pandemic – whether from their homes or their regular workplaces – and voiced concern about staff safety.
Here, CSW looks at some of the facts.
Have all civil servants been working from home during the pandemic?
No. Some jobs cannot be done remotely. Estimates vary, but a survey by the Prospect union in August 2020, following the first pandemic lockdown, found 44% of members who responded stating they had continued to do their jobs from a workplace or another location, rather than working from home. HM Passport Office and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency were among the organisations that stipulated some officials needed to work on-site.
So what proportion of the civil service has been working from home?
Departments compile workplace attendance statistics, although they are not circulated publicly. CSW understands that before guidance to work from home wherever possible was introduced in response to the emergence of the Omicron variant, an average of 61% of officials were attending their workplace for at least part of the week. The figures, which relate to October 2021, indicated that 55% of officials at the “Whitehall 16” departments were in the office for at least part of the week. During 2021’s winter lockdown, the data indicated 30% of staff across the civil service were at their workplaces for at least part of the week.
Before new guidance was introduced in response to the Omicron variant, 61% of officials were attending their workplace for at least part of the week
Is working from home being banned?
Steve Barclay did not explicitly say that. He just said it was important for “maximum use” of the government’s office space to be made and for the civil service to “move away from a reliance on video meetings” and get back to the benefits of face-to-face, collaborative working.
Do departments have enough space to accommodate all staff at the same time?
Not according to civil service unions. FDA general secretary Dave Penman said most government departments only have desks for 60% of their staff. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has been cited as one example of a department that has actively reduced its central London floorspace in recent years. Doing this is part of wider plans to reduce the size of the government’s Whitehall estate.
What does civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm think?
In 2020, shortly after the government cancelled its first back-to-the-office drive targeted at departmental staff, Alex Chisholm – who is also Cabinet Office perm sec – told MPs he believed a new balance between home and office working would emerge. Chisholm said he anticipated hybrid working would mean increasing the numbers of officials could be based at the same office, because they would not all be there at the same time.
Last August, HM Revenue and Customs said hybrid working meant that its new Wellington Place hub in Leeds would be able to accommodate more staff than was originally envisaged and that about 1,000 additional departmental staff were moving to the new offices.
Isn’t hybrid working also important for plans to move 22,000 civil service jobs out of London?
Yes. The FDA says it received an early-stage briefing on the government’s Places for Growth programme that suggested it would require staff to work remotely for 40% of the time. In August last year then Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said flexible working arrangements would be “crucial” to delivering on the agenda, with more officials and ministers outside of London “and great career prospects regardless of where you work”.
In comments that followed another return-to-the-office spat in the national press, Gove said the government would draw on lessons as it looked at how best to “adopt longer-term flexible-working arrangements” across the UK.
Do civil servants want to work from home permanently?
Some do, but most just want to retain the option to work remotely now the pandemic has demonstrated what is possible. A survey of 25,000 civil servants – most of whom were working from home during the first coronavirus lockdown – found that just 27% were keen to return to their regular workplaces for the majority of the week. The research, conducted by the Leesman consultancy for the Government Property Agency, noted that civil servants who did not have a dedicated work area at home had a less favourable experience of remote working. Leesman said respondents in London and those at lower pay bands were more likely to have had poorer experience of working from home than other civil service colleagues.
"False polarities have been asserted of ‘exclusive WFH’ and a full return to five-day-a-week attendance. In reality, the future is likely to be more nuanced"
What about the downsides of working from home?
Prospect deputy general secretary Garry Graham said the reality of working from home had not been the “nirvana” for civil servants that some people had suggested. “The boundaries between work and home life have become increasingly blurred, with reports of staff burn out and a feeling amongst many that they have been living at work,” he said. “False polarities have been asserted of ‘exclusive WFH’ and a full return to five-day-a-week attendance. In reality, the future is likely to be more nuanced – in a way that meets both operational requirement and demands and the needs and preferences of staff.”
What are new recruits being told?
Recent job adverts, including some for posts at the Treasury and the Department for International Trade have suggested that successful applicants will be entitled to follow “informal” hybrid working patterns that will require “two-to-three days a week” in a workplace.
Are there any flashpoints with the latest return-to-work drive?
The PCS union has criticised the Department for Work and Pensions’ plans for a full return to face-to-face services at Jobcentres. It argues that the pandemic is not over yet and points to daily mortality figures in the 300 region as evidence of ongoing dangers to staff and the vulnerable. DWP is due to formalise its hybrid-working arrangements in the coming weeks, but PCS is angry that customer-facing Jobcentre roles are excluded. It is escalating its concerns to the Cabinet Office.
What is the private sector doing?
Last summer, a survey by the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry found that 46% of businesses in the capital whose operations supported home working expected staff to do work remotely for four or five days a week.
Consultant PwC has announced a “new deal” for its 22,000 employees that included an expectation that they would spend 40%-60% of their working time “co-located with colleagues” either at the company’s offices or those of clients. It is also offering a greater choice of start and finish times.
Has the world of work really changed for good?
Julia Hobsbawn, author of soon-to-be-published book The Nowhere Office, thinks so. She argues that many of the issues we now face can be understood as challenges we long delayed addressing – such as how to balance home life and work life, and how to cope with the cascade of technological opportunities and threats.
Hobsbawn, who is chair of the Workshift Commission at think tank Demos, says it is possible to rise to the challenges of remote working, repurposing offices for more creative interaction, managing working-from-home teams, and satisfying the demand for more purposeful work with greater work/life balance by redesigning not just the places we work but how we work. Crucially, she argues now is the time to do it.