Dave Penman: Riffing Rishi’s Pret project could undermine civil service relocation drive

Ministers are starting to drop hints about driving civil servants back to the office again as the summer break starts. But this could undermine the government’s own efforts to move officials out of Whitehall
Photo: REUTERS/Phil Noble/Pool/Alamy Stock Photo

By Dave Penman

05 Aug 2021

It’s the second summer of Covid. Most people are staycationing – or going on holiday, as we called it when I was young. At least we got to plan our summer a little this year, rather than the £200-a-night-plus-cleaning-charge for an Airbnb bedsit in the wrong end of Lowestoft we were left with last summer. 

As usual, the weather’s turned iffy in time for the school holidays and the government dumped its usual trash on the last day of parliament. This year it was enhanced by a hokey-cokey on NHS pay that finally nails which conspiracy theory you wish to apply to this government. 

What is surprising, though, is that we’re starting to see a second summer wave of ministerial hints and totally-random-not-briefed-at-all stories about remote working. The chancellor in particular has made a couple of interventions about how those inspirational water cooler chats just can’t be replicated over Teams. In Riffing Rishi’s latest intervention, during an interview with LinkedIn News – no, I didn’t know either – the chancellor reminisced about his time as a young investment banker and hedge fund manager and the connections he made and mentors he found that he’s still in contact with today.  

I think the chancellor actually makes an excellent point. There clearly are some interactions that are better done in person. I find that Teams/Zoom (other virtual meeting software is available) is great for one to ones and for 500 people at once. Inbetween it get less useful. As a union, our stock in trade is influence, and building relationships is a critical part of that. We are a people business and Lord knows if I don’t enjoy a good bit of social interaction to further the members’ cause. 

Also, as the chancellor points out, at some times during your career in-person contact is not only preferable, but more effective. We’ve all seen how challenging it is for new starters when working exclusively remotely – it’s not impossible but definitely isn’t prefereable. So why take issue with his repeated comments on this theme?  

Well, for a start, as the chancellor very well knows, very few people actually want to work from home full time. All of the evidence from across the economy, including our own extensive surveys of thousands of civil servants, shows that most people want a bit of both. They value those personal interactions: they understand that building new relationships can be more difficult (again, not impossible) over a screen. They enjoy the social aspect to work and sometimes it’s nice to sit on a chair that makes you realise why it costs £500. 

The chancellor was quick to say “we’re not being prescriptive”, but he keeps repeating the point about “in-person” contact and of course, the reactionary press keeps leaping on it. I’m sure this comes as no surprise to the man who, if nothing else, has a pretty sophisticated media operation behind him. He knows most people in his own department and across government want enough time in the office to build those links and have those in-person contacts. 

Maybe Rishi is just riffing, but I doubt it. I suspect he’s using this to keep up the pressure not only on civil servants, but the wider economy. He may or may not feel that it’s best to be in the office, but he’s also providing click bait for those who want to leap on the bandwagon of attacking the civil service and cannot fathom that remote or hybrid working can be as – if not more – effective than simply being in the office. Whether he’s worried about the "Pret economy" or the commercial property market or both, I don’t know, but this is no accident. 

The chancellor is also being hypocritical. One of the reasons why hybrid working is here to stay is that it provides benefits for both employers and employees. The work gets done just as effectively, but costs go down through reduction in what can be pretty expensive real estate. Employees get better work-life balance and fewer days of that dreaded commute – win-win. 

The government is not immune from this. Its hubs and Places for Growth strategy is built on an expectation of significant hybrid or home working. Indeed, some of the early planning on Places for Growth anticipated up to 40% of relocated jobs would be done entirely remotely. This very day, the government is announcing that the Leeds hub will now include an additional seven government departments because the space requirements for the main tenant – HMRC – are reducing due to greater hybrid working. And of course, the demands of those other government departments are also reducing. It is a picture that will be replicated not only across government, but across a large swathe of the professional services economy. 

The world of work for many has already permanently changed and this is likely to have an impact on city centre economies over a very short period of time. The job of government – and if you’ll indulge me, the chancellor – is to support the economy through this change, not provide click bait for Guido on the one hand, whilst reaping the benefits of a smaller government estate on the other.  

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