Departments take cautious approach on return to office

Ministries trial hybrid-working plans but fears remain about staff being pressured back to desks
Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive/Press Association Images

By Jim Dunton

27 Sep 2021

Civil service unions are upbeat about the prospects of keeping hybrid-working arrangements in place for the long term after ministers pointedly avoided a repeat of last autumn’s aborted “return to the office” drive. But concerns remain about calls for staff to be present at their workplaces for at least part of the week as coronavirus infection rates increase and the winter flu season approaches.

Departments are being left to their own devices to determine how much time – if any – staff should spend at their regular workplaces after most coronavirus restrictions were eased in July. The stance is in stark contrast to September 2020, when plans to get 80% of civil servants back to their offices for at least part of the week were scrapped as the second wave of Covid-19 gathered pace.

Civil service job advertisements are giving a flavour of what departments believe the post-pandemic “new normal” will look like. Applicants for recent Treasury roles have been told that most staff at the department should expect to be in their offices for two-to-three days a week, on average.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ads say it is “exploring future ways of working with flexibility in mind” and the option of combining working at home with a working at a Defra group workplace will be offered “subject to business need”. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government says flexible-working opportunities “will be discussed with the vacancy manager on a case-by-case basis” with successful applicants.

The civil service’s biggest union, PCS, said that while there was a sense that arguments about embedding hybrid working across the civil service had been won, there were immediate concerns about staff having to return to workplaces before they were comfortable doing so.

“The very firm position of all the unions is that there should be no compulsion,” a PCS spokesperson said. “People have got lots of reasons about why they’re reluctant to try going in, even if it’s on a hybrid basis of one or two days a week.”

Concerns include crowded public transport, rising levels of infection rates and a recognition – based on 18 months of remote working – that it is unnecessary to be in an office to work effectively.

“Where the operational nature of the work requires it, people do have to go to a workplace to carry out their proper function,” the PCS spokesperson said. “But it’s clear that in the vast majority of cases, civil servants working from home is completely feasible and practical. And for the sake of avoiding risks and contact with others, that should continue.”

The spokesperson said the approaching colder weather, coupled with questions over the long-term effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines, meant there would be a period of many months when it wasn’t sensible to encourage people who could work from home back to their offices.

“We don’t know what this winter is going to do, do we? We don’t really have a clue at the moment,” the spokesperson said. “So the idea of expecting people to make hard and fast commitments is entirely inappropriate.”

Steven Littlewood, national officer at public sector leaders’ union the FDA, said departments appeared to be taking a pragmatic approach.

“Apart from a bit of noise from some backbenchers and unnamed government ministers, we have not so far seen a repeat of the mistakes of last summer,” he said. “Departments are adopting a cautious and gradual approach to the return to workplaces.

“The evidence we have seen on the levels of attendance in offices is in line with what we would expect from a gradual return.”

Garry Graham, deputy general secretary at the Prospect union of public sector professionals, said most departments and agencies were “alert” to staff concerns, and were not imposing arbitrary targets for attendance.

“We have an opportunity to learn lessons and make work better for the future,” he said. “Most members express a desire for greater flexibility and for a blend of working from home and office or on site.

“Employers need to be acutely aware that they will be judged by staff and potential new staff as to how they approach and manage the coming months.

“Prospect is working hard with employers so we can build back a new normal with a focus on supporting staff and maximising the flexibilities available to them so we can focus on our common endeavour of delivering public services we can all be proud of.”

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove – who spearheaded 2020’s scrapped return-to-work drive – conceded last month that flexible working would be “crucial” to making a success of the government’s plans to move 22,000 civil service jobs out of the capital by the end of the decade.

He said the government would be drawing on the civil service’s pandemic experience to shape thinking on “how best to adopt longer-term flexible working arrangements”, but insisted that there were “clear productivity advantages to office working” in many cases.

CSW asked the Cabinet Office whether there was any official guidance on staff who have been working at home being required to attend their regular workplaces and whether individual departments had targets for the managed return of officials.

It did not respond directly to either point, or to questions about the process for determining a long-term policy on flexible working for the civil service.

However a government spokesperson said the civil service was continuing to follow the latest government guidance on remote working.

“By taking appropriate steps to reduce the risk of transmission of Covid, we are gradually increasing the numbers of staff in the workplace, while ensuring we retain the flexibility of home-based working where appropriate,” the spokesperson said.


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