Home (working) truths: how the government could really deliver something world-beating from Covid-19

A civil servant laments mixed messages on remote working and suggests radical thinking could help the levelling-up agenda, aid small businesses and contribute to tackling climate change
Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images

By James Anderson

03 Sep 2020

Polls say voters, particularly younger ones, don’t want to go back to the office; health secretary Matt Hancock says he cares more about whether civil servants are productive than where they are; meanwhile senior Tory MPs, including the prime minister are calling for Britain to “get back to work”. You might have thought the government machine would have come up with a more coherent message, but then, that’s been a symptom of its handling the whole pandemic.

I'm not sure what the prime minister and his cabinet really want. It wasn't long ago that Boris Johnson said he'd like to start seeing civil servants back in the office. It started back in early July on a call with the “top 200”, Whitehall’s most senior officials. He is reported to have said something along the lines of “look forward to seeing you back in the office soon!“ Only to have it pointed out that government advice still said those who could work from home should continue to do so. A few days later the prime minister announced a change in the messaging: workers should go back to their place of work “if they can”.

Many a work-from-homer hack in the Daily Mail or the Daily Express has lamented the low ”return-to-work levels” among civil servants. We’re easy targets, given we can't argue back. It really is akin to picking an argument with someone who is gagged and tied to a chair and having the cheek to do it over Zoom from a cosy home office.

Britain could really 'lead the world' in becoming a home home-working nation, where solutions to the problems of working from home are solved

Civil servants haven't had a five-month vacation. Nor has it been a quiet time for government officials. The service has delivered an incredible range of interventions since February and it’s not like we weren't busy before. Many have done this at their desks because they're front line staff like Border Force officials or because they work in physical response centres in some of the major departments, such as the Department of Health and Social Care or the Ministry of Defence. Many have done this from home, working more hours and weekends than they've ever worked in their careers to ensure NHS and social care workers got the personal protective equipment they needed or that the shielded got prescriptions and food parcels.

Not only have civil servants pulled out all the stops for those reasons, but also to get politicians the answers to questions they needed; to write their speaking notes; and to deliver on their latest pet idea which we could have really done without having to focus on. Anyone who tries to imply the civil service is somehow missing in action is just plain wrong.

Relocation, relocation, relocation

As the prime minister was encouraging civil servants back into their offices in Whitehall he was also talking about moving huge numbers of civil servants outside London as part of the “levelling up” agenda and the Beyond Whitehall project. The cognitive dissonance here baffles me. How can you at once say civil servants need to get back into their offices in Whitehall and that they shouldn't be so London-centric, spending all their time in the great offices of state; not getting out and meeting real people, grounding themselves in the communities they serve.

It's been pretty well accepted in Whitehall for years that policy officials are too heavily concentrated in London. But one of the principal barriers to change is that ministers expect to be able to call on officials at a moment's notice and  – on the whole –  they expect to do it in person. The cognitive dissonance I mentioned is something deeply cultural and not just in politicians: it’s about how far you trust people to get on with their job. In my experience, civil servants who are trusted and work flexibly, work just as hard, if not more so, than those who are always in the office. One of the silver linings of this horrible pandemic period is that it has proved it isn’t necessary for everyone to be in the office all the time to get the job done.

Retail therapy

If the prime minister and his cabinet really want to achieve levelling up, spreading wealth and opportunity around the country, then they need to jump on the “work from home is the new normal” bandwagon. Yes, our cities and large town centres are suffering; Pret and Itsu don't know what's hit them. But when it comes to addressing the decline of the high street, it’s the row of shops near where people actually live and the smaller town centres that have suffered most.  

We have concentrated our workplaces into ever-smaller footprints in ever-fewer areas of economic productivity, so places where people live become ghost towns during the day and restaurants, cafes and bars follow the crowd to city centres. This pandemic has stopped that. With a bit of support from a prime minister and his cabinet, some positive messaging and some minor policy interventions, the shift that is already occurring  towards staying local and mostly working from home could dramatically change the fortunes of neighbourhood shops and businesses.

Covid-safe guidelines hugely reduce the capacity of government offices – we literally can't all go back yet

Britain could really lead the world in becoming a home-working nation, the place where solutions to the problems of working from home are solved. Local hub offices could spring up in our smaller town centres for parents with young children and house-sharers to get some peace and make use of meeting rooms from time to time; local cafes could have queues down the street for that decent morning coffee that no one is going to want to give up; breakfast, coffee and lunch-delivery trolleys could seek out custom from those working in their home offices, like the tea ladies of old. This could so easily be a positive thing, but it does need a champion: someone who can encourage the nation; put a positive spin on something that will involve short term pain; someone who can boldly set out on a journey not knowing where it will end. It needs someone who is prepared to take the risk. Sound like anyone we know?

The not-so-great offices of state

One reason working from home has caught the imagination, particularly of the young, is its connection to climate change. The death of the commute is no bad thing for the environment, more walking and cycling is good too. Instead of humans having two locations to be powered, watered and serviced, working from home only requires one. Switching off the great air conditioning units of state would be no bad thing.

Before the pandemic, ever-larger numbers of civil servants were being crammed into ever-smaller office spaces. Some of the great offices of state were operating on as low as 5:10 desk ratios. Civil servants sharing desks was normal in my office. We grumbled, but we got on with it. However, things simply can't go back to how they were until Covid-19 is well and truly off the agenda. Current Covid-safe guidelines hugely reduce the capacity of government offices. You can't even do one-person-one-desk at the moment. We literally can't all go back to the office yet. Added to that, the great offices of state weren't very pleasant places to work because there were simply too many people crammed into them. You could never get a meeting room big enough, you often had to fight over a desk phone and monitor, and queue for the tea point and toilet. You don't have to do any of that at home.

Myriad studies show that a happy worker is a productive one. If people don't want to go back to their offices, forcing them is simply counterproductive. And it’s not like relations between civil servants and politicians are at a high at the moment.

Read the most recent articles written by James Anderson - Sofa government: What it’s like to WFH (Whitehall from home) in our time of coronavirus

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