With little more than two weeks until all coronavirus-related restrictions are due to be lifted under prime minister Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown, the Cabinet Office is said to be in listening mode on managing civil servants’ return to their workplaces. But an across-the-board target for staff to get back to offices cannot be ruled out.
Unions representing the near-500,000 civil servants at departments and arm’s-length bodies said there is a recognition among senior officials that last year’s aborted late-summer drive to get 80% of staff back to their regular workplaces for at least part of the week should not be repeated. The drive was scrapped as Covid-19 infection rates began to rise across the nation.
But the unions have also voiced fears that conciliatory tones from senior officials can quickly be trumped by political window-dressing designed to use civil servants as a bellwether for a national return-to-work drive – potentially discarding more effective working from home in the process.
Data on the spread of the new “delta variant” of Covid-19 over the next week could force ministers to push back the 21 June milestone to end all legal restrictions in the PM’s roadmap. But if it doesn’t, civil servants can expect new guidance on their working arrangements.
PCS, which is the civil service’s largest union, said it and its sister organisations are “very concerned” about the potential for another about-turn attempt to get staff back to offices when most have been successfully working remotely for the past 15 months.
“August and September was a disaster, when ministers were saying they had to get 80% to return to the office,” a PCS spokesperson said. “It was premature, unnecessary and deeply resented by managers as well as staff.”
They said that an across-the-board diktat that “X%” of staff should return to their workplaces would be hugely disruptive at a time when 80% of staff are successfully working from home for most or all of the week.
“We need to exercise extreme caution,” the spokesperson said. “People need to have a series of options put to them and to be made to feel secure.”
PCS said it believes there is a recognition among Cabinet Office officials that the return-to-the-workplace approach taken in August and September should not be repeated. But the spokesperson added: “Whether that’s gone right to the top of the tree and been absorbed is a different question.”
Earlier this week PCS accused ministers of “scuppering” a deal to end a dispute at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea, where union members are striking over Covid-related safety measures and the number of staff required to work onsite.
It said a solution had been reached with senior management at DVLA and Department for Transport permanent secretary Bernadette Kelly, only for it to be withdrawn without explanation on Tuesday, ahead of the start of a three-day strike that concludes today.
General secretary Mark Serwotka said the union “strongly suspected” senior ministers at DfT had interfered with the process to make an “ideological stand”.
Lucille Thirlby, assistant general secretary at the FDA union, said she hopes ministers have learned the lessons of last year’s failed “big bang” return to the workplace and will avoid setting arbitrary targets for the next return.
“There needs to be a clear and steady approach agreed with the trade unions at departmental level,” she said. “The quiet revolution in working practices during the pandemic is here to stay. We are engaging with employers to ensure that the formal return to workplaces is not about percentages of people in the office space, but instead provides an opportunity to rethink what the office is for and how civil servants work most effectively, and to recalibrate the balance of work and life.”
Thirlby pointed to a recent FDA survey that found 97% of members of the public-sector leaders' union wanted to continue with some form of home working after the lockdown.
“We’re keen that employers harness the benefits of truly flexible hybrid working,” she said. “Civil servants have remained highly engaged, productive and feel more trusted than they did pre-pandemic, so a measured and focused approach to the future world of work must include engagement and agreement from both the employee and the unions.”
Earlier this year HM Revenue and Customs agreed a ground-breaking deal with staff that offered many a pay hike worth 13% over three years in return for a new alignment of terms and conditions. The deal also included the right to work from home for two days a week.
CSW understands that Cabinet Office discussions on the future of working from home are focused on the appropriate balance of days at a designated workplace and days working remotely, rather than the principle of an entitlement to work from home.
Garry Graham, deputy general secretary at Prospect, said his union has been “very clear” with the Cabinet Office that a gradual return of staff to offices should not be driven by arbitrary targets set by the centre, but instead be “underpinned by operational need and the best interests of staff”.
“Our experience thus far is that a pragmatic and precautionary approach is being taken,” he said.
Graham said it is important to remember that individuals have different views on working remotely – but that it is not an option for some operational roles.
“Amongst many staff, the most recent lockdown has felt particularly tough – with an increase in people feeling isolated, missing engagement with colleagues and friends and the boundaries between work and home life becoming increasingly blurred,” he said.
“It must also be remembered that many of our members do not work in normal office environments and have had to attend workplaces for operational reasons. Others, particularly younger members and those with children have found working from ‘home’ particularly challenging.”
Graham said the sense that traditional offices are a thing of the past is “wildly overblown”.
“For many the likelihood is that work will be an increasing blend of working from home and in office locations,” he said. “The key is to ensure that flexibility is a balance and does not rest simply with the employer.”
CSW asked the Cabinet Office whether all civil servants would be required to return to their regular workplaces from 21 June if the prime minister’s roadmap remains in place or whether a figure like last summer’s 80% target could be imposed.
It said departments are making their own arrangements to be ready for a broader return to the workplace when government guidance changes.
“The civil service has constantly assessed the best ways for staff to work effectively and safely throughout the pandemic,” a spokesperson said.
“We continue to be led by the latest government guidance while work is also being carried out in parallel to look at how our offices will be used in the future.
“This will both draw on lessons learned from the pandemic and our Places for Growth strategy."
The Cabinet Office added that the safety of staff is a priority and it has ensured its workplaces are Covid-secure in line with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Safer Workplace Guidance.