A quarter of DfE officials return to office as Sunak urges young people to ditch home working

"Quite frankly, they are all excited to come back," education minister says
Photo: U.S. Embassy London/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

By Alain Tolhurst

03 Aug 2021

Education minister Gillian Keegan has said only a quarter of civil servants in her department are back in the office despite Rishi Sunak urging young employees to move away from home working.

She denied the government was telling businesses what to do after the chancellor warned video conferencing was no substitute for being around colleagues in the workplace.

Keegan, minister for apprenticeships and skills, told Times Radio: "I have been in the office four days a week since June last year, as have many of us... because obviously we have had to navigate these very difficult decisions during the pandemic.

"And many of the civil servants are also back now, more and more are coming back, and quite frankly they are all excited to come back."

She said the government is telling firms to "use the summer to sort of reintroduce people coming back”, but asked how many civil servants are back in the office, she said: "In the DfE, I would say probably 20-25% at the moment on any one day, obviously different people are coming in different days."

Asked on LBC if the government is telling people they must go back into the office now, Keegan replied: "No, no. We are always saying 'Is it safe to go back to the office?'

"Businesses will decide. We're not telling them what to do.”

She added: "There was a time in the pandemic when we basically said 'work from home'.

"We're now saying that time has gone. It's safe to go back to the office. Use the summer to ramp up that. There'll be flexible working in the future but it is safe to go back to the office."

It comes after Sunak told young people going into the office could be “really beneficial” to their careers and cautioned against allowing remote working to become the norm when he met those starting careers in financial services.

The Times is reporting that in an interview with LinkedIn News he said: “I was telling them that the mentors I found when I first started my job I still talk to and they have been helpful to me even after we have gone in different ways.

"I doubt I would have had those strong relationships if I was doing my internship or my first bit of my career over [Microsoft] Teams and Zoom.

“That’s why I think for young people in particular, being able to physically be in an office is valuable.”

Last summer the government was set to launch a campaign urging people to stop working from home, as ministers warned it would make people more “vulnerable” to being sacked.

The publicity drive was meant to make the “emotional case” for returning to the workplace and the mental health benefits of mixing with colleagues.

But it was abandoned after the second wave of the virus took hold, and Boris Johnson only began to recommend a "gradual return to work” when the final legal Covid restrictions were removed last month.

Alain Tolhurst is chief reporter at CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared.

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