The genie has left not only the bottle, but the entire building – so stop trying to shame civil servants back to the office

As journalists accuse "workshy" officials of "wrecking the economy", Dave Penman asks: If remote working works for employees, why not embrace it?
Whitehall has been near deserted as civil servants work from home during the coronavirus lockdown. Photo: David Cliff/NurPhoto/PA Images

By Dave Penman

06 Aug 2020

There is no doubt that for many people, working from home is simply not an option. Not all jobs lend themselves to that type of work and not everyone finds it an attractive proposition. However, for millions of workers, both in the public and private sectors, work revolves around a desk, a computer and a phone.

So, whether it’s civil servants in Whitehall or commodities traders in Canary Wharf, where you actually sit has, over the last decade, mattered less and less. More and more, employers have been recognising that a mixture of home and office working benefits both them and their employees.

Many government departments have been adapting their workplace strategies over the last few years to integrate greater flexible working. HM Revenue and Customs was one of the organisations at the forefront of these changes as it decided to concentrate in a series of major hubs around the country. These state-of-the-art offices cater for far larger numbers of staff than there are desks. Staff are given the technology to work from home and can come in to the office for days or hours at a time, whether to sit at a desk or attend a meeting.

This is one of the reasons it was able to pivot from a 95% workplace-based organisation to a 95% home-based organisation so quickly and effectively when coronavirus struck. Not only was it able to maintain business as usual, but its staff designed and delivered the Covid job retention scheme, helping over nine million workers. Designed, as a minister said, on kitchen tables up and down the country, this scheme has been a lifeline for a significant proportion of Britain’s workers.

Elsewhere, civil servants in the Department for Work and Pensions had to cope with a six-fold increase in Universal Credit claims, and in the Foreign Office they had to organise repatriation for more than a million citizens stranded abroad. Civil servants were redeployed across departments to where the help was needed most, as the government and country faced our health and economic emergency.

That is why is it is so insulting when instead, commentators or politicians talk about workshy civil servants, or lazily equate effective working with attending an office. Many civil servants are working far longer hours than they did before, trading commuting hours every day for actual productive work and employers are clear that there’s been no drop off in efficiency. Civil servants know that, managers know that – and I actually believe ministers know that – so why have we seen story after story trying to shame civil servants back to offices?

Let’s put aside the hypocrisy of a journalist, who recently bragged about working from home for 30 years, writing for a paper that boasted a recent edition was produced without anyone having to be in the office (OK, maybe not put it too far aside), calling for officials to return.. It’s clear that deploying attack lines such as civil servants "wrecking the economy" by not going back to their workplace is a coordinated strategy. Ministers have been grumbling about getting civil servants back to offices and seem keen to use them to virtue signal to a private sector that has quite frankly, in many cases, already moved on to a new model of working. Lo and behold, the next moment we have journalists counting the number of civil servants entering buildings on Boris’s national "back to the office" day.

Departments have been talking to employees and the unions about increasing the numbers who return to work in a sensible and pragmatic way but, it would appear, not quickly enough for some. Lockdown has demonstrated – in both the public and private sectors – that efficiency and presenteeism are far from the same thing. If remote working works for employees and is as – if not more – efficient that office-based working, why not embrace it?

Lockdown was a social experiment that no one could previously have suggested. Imagine standing up at a board meeting of a major financial institution in the City and suggesting they send 95% of staff home, with less than a week’s notice, to see if the company can still survive? They did though, and now there’s no going back.

Pre-Covid, the talk was how artificial intelligence would change the world of work, but in the space of a few months, flexible working is has become the new industrial revolution. Of course, the effect this is having on the economy is an enormous and unforeseen challenge, for a government already coping with a series of unprecedented events. The solution, however, is not to try and shame civil servants into returning to offices. Greater flexible working is clearly, for many employers, benefiting the bottom line, as they make significant savings on office space and employees save precious hours on commuting. The world has changed, the ship has sailed and the genie has left not only the bottle, but the entire building. Time for ministers to stop the finger-pointing, recognise where we are now and start to plan.

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Coronavirus HR
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