Sofa government: What it’s like to WFH (Whitehall from home) in our time of coronavirus

A civil servant offers some homespun wisdom on the highs and lows of remote working during a pandemic – and discovers it is anything but pants



By James Anderson

15 Apr 2020

Coronavirus has done what endless civil service programmes encouraging flexible, home and indeed Beyond Whitehall working have failed to achieve for decades. If we have learned anything, it is that proximity is not a requirement for the operation of government; but that it helps.

Most of the civil service has been working from home for nearly a month now in response to the prime minister’s “work from home if you can” social distancing plea.

A skeleton crew has been left across the office buildings of state. Ministers, perm secs and directors general are all taking Whitehall home with them. With one or two exceptions, it’s really only those civil servants on the front line, like prison or border force officers, who remain “at their post”.

It’s not like this is all completely new. Despite the civil service’s London-centricity, it is an organisation which is spread all across the country and around the world; so the idea that one or two people might join a meeting virtually or work on a shared document/database from two different sites isn’t unfamiliar. Particularly for departments with half-decent IT, this is pretty standard. But what happens when virtually no one’s in the office? 

Too much information

There has been a noticeable shift in the culture and behaviour in meetings. There must be something about being in your own home that shifts your attitude towards otherwise formal meetings.

In my department, daily/weekly “team check ins”, “update calls” and “virtual coffee breaks” went in pretty much instantly with a view to “maintain a sense of team”. The time is largely taken up with personal isolation stories. Everything from “I got loo roll today!” (met with rapturous applause) to “we’re self-isolating, the twins have got a cough”. After all, what else do we have to talk about at the moment? But these calls also include more practical advice on the best exercise videos for you and your kids. I am reliably informed the answer is Joe Wicks’s PE class. (He is very handsome... that is the extent of my engagement with this subject.)

I’ve never seen so many pictures of people’s pets, kids or partners. Added to that are the crying children or significant others walking around in their underwear (or worse) not realising they can be seen in the mirror behind call participants. (Top tip: carefully consider mirror locations when choosing your video call station.) Such sights used to be rare on a conference call before this crisis; but taking Whitehall home with you means home comes to Whitehall. Actually, it’s wonderful. What better antidote to the doom and gloom of self-isolation than adopting the families and pets of your colleagues?

I don’t normally wear PJs, but are they acceptable for a Teams call? We’ve got nothing to dress up for, after all.

Also, how great is it judging other people’s homes? And so many decisions about how to present your own! Do you sit in front of your favourite painting? (Yes, it’s a Rembrandt – a print of course!) Reorganise your bookcase so that all the most impressive philosophical works are in view and UK Government for Dummies and Dawn French’s Dear Fatty are out of sight? (You know who you are.) 

Or perhaps you live in one room in a six-bed house share and make the point that this situation is not ideal by having your washing in the background and not making your bed? I know for a fact it’s not just me. 

I’m getting really used to the pre-meeting chat while you wait for the chair/more attendees to arrive. Even the most formal of meetings have been prefaced in recent weeks with the most inane conversations about the absurdity of home life in lockdown. 

Dress-down Monday-to-Friday 

I don’t normally wear PJs, but are they acceptable for a Teams call? We’ve got nothing to dress up for, after all. I’ve only done one call in my dressing gown so far (and I deactivated the camera for that one). That’s what happens if you ask me to be on a call at 9am on Saturdays or Sundays. 

I did do my Civil Service Fast Stream video interview in just a shirt, tie and jacket, but that was some time ago. I wonder how common "not bothering with the bottom half" has become? Did I forget to mention underwear? You’ll never know.

But who are these people who are sitting at home and still wearing a shirt and tie? Stop it. I cannot emphasise that enough. Trousers or not! 

Fear of real life interrupting 

If I hear the words “sorry, I was on mute” one more time I can’t be held responsible for my actions. Even the most tech savvy of people can occasionally forget to unmute themselves which results in 14 people on a call shouting “you’re on mute” for 20 seconds until the person realises. But then if you don’t mute yourself after every contribution, god knows what awful sounds could reverberate around the speakers of others. Over the past few weeks very important discussions have been interrupted by “do you want a cuppa?”, shrieks of “maaaaaaaaaaaam”, dogs barking or even just frantic typing from the note-taker.

Fear of missing out

Covid-19 is transforming Whitehall in a way that Operation Yellowhammer would have been proud of. Thousands of civil servants have had their roles completely absorbed by responding to the huge impact of the pandemic. Everything from trying to repatriate people on cruise ships to the constant need to update guidance. Food? Who needs that? (Oh, everyone.) Did I mention getting health and social care workers everything they need to keep people alive? 

Reorganising departments with thousands of staff and complex webs of networks and policy/practical inter-dependencies is hard enough when you can do it in the office, properly read a room or keep people in the loop simply by them being there. This is all unquantifiably harder when you’re not sitting next to them. Let’s not kid ourselves: artificially creating those communal information transfer methods is just not as effective in this environment.

This kind of “inclusivity” (can’t write a piece about the civil service and not use that word!) has been on the radar of officials for some time, but it's probably always been the one given the least attention. Largely because there is not a lot you can practically do to stop proximity being an advantage and lack of proximity being a disadvantage. So many of the advantages of proximity are not particularly deliberate, but that’s changing now. When every communication is deliberate, we have to think more about the who/what/where/how/when of inclusive communication.

To some extent, the regular refrain that those who aren’t based in the London HQ feel “distant” from what’s going on is now being felt by everyone

To some extent the regular refrain that those not based at the London HQ feel “distant” from what’s going on is now being felt by everyone. Being missed off the copy list or not invited to the video call about the big departmental re-org is so much worse when you can’t see the email ping up on your teammate’s computer or you miss out on everyone talking about it at the water cooler. Not being able to ask the person sitting next to you a stupid question is also very frustrating, particularly when your work world has been turned inside out, you’re in a new team and you’re tired and grumpy from working more hours than civil servants are used to, or while looking after the kids (or both). Right on cue, a child falls down the stairs seconds before you’re about to lead an agenda item on a call with your secretary of state. Or the doorbell rings: “Shit, that’s the Tesco delivery!” But you’re not on mute.

Have we covered everything, everyone?

Why am I writing this? Maybe that’s how I process what’s happening. It’s important we stop and reflect on the colossal change this is for all of us. 

Like every good civil servant, I’ll summarise the key messages: this is not normal, it’s OK to find it baffling; take time to adjust; think about what this does to the inclusive civil service; get to know your colleagues better; take the tie off; pants optional. 

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