Civil servants will soon be told they must spend 60% of their working hours in the office, in a government-wide push, CSW has learned.
Ministers have directed senior officials to “set and implement an expectation of increased office-based working” among their staff, according to a draft letter sent to some senior civil servants this morning.
“We have together agreed, therefore, that across the civil service, those based in offices will spend a minimum of 60% of their working time working face to face with their colleagues either in offices or on official business, rather than at home,” says the letter, seen by CSW.
To provide “strong visible leadership”, senior managers will meanwhile be expected to spend "more than 60%" of their time in the office, along with early-career officials and those on development schemes.
However, the change will not affect reasonable adjustments or contractual changes, according to the letter – which also promises to retain “flexibility” to adjust working hours and locations.
The letter is dated 15 November, two days after Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin, who had responsibility for civil service reform, resigned and was replaced by former chief secretary to the Treasury John Glen in a cabinet reshuffle.
CSW understands the Cabinet Office had been preparing to broadcast the change to staff this week, but that the official announcement has been delayed.
Until now, it has been up to individual departments to determine how much of their time staff should spend in the office – and how rigidly to enforce guidelines on working patterns.
Rumours have been circulating for some time that a shift towards a more centrally determined approach is on the way. Sources in three government departments told CSW they had been told by high-ranking colleagues to expect an announcement mandating the 60% threshold around the time of the upcoming Autumn Statement.
The letter – which was shared with senior officials “under embargo” and is signed “heads of departments” – notes that not all departments will be able to accommodate staff spending the equivalent of three days a week in their offices because of limited space.
Working patterns are therefore subject to “estate capacity”.
“While most departments in most locations have enough space to implement this new expectation, we know that this is not the case across the board,” it says.
“So while the 60% expectation is common to us all, we will each be consulting following our normal processes and communicating with our own departments as in some cases, there will need to be other arrangements put in place due to lack of office space to accommodate a 60% expectation.”
“We will also be communicating individually about the transition arrangements which will be needed in our organisations before we implement the change as needs here will also differ. Discussions with staff will take all equality considerations into account,” it adds.
The change is driven by consideration of the “significant benefits” arising from working in-person with colleagues both within the same departments and in other parts of government, according to the letter.
“These include collaboration, innovation, and fostering a sense of community. We know that in particular, junior colleagues benefit from having time face to face with senior leaders and that those early in their careers find working face to face with their peers and managers makes them more effective more quickly.”
“We also agree that to ensure strong visible leadership across sites, we want to see senior managers spending more than 60% of their working time face to face with their colleagues in offices or out on official business,” it adds.
Some of the criticism directed at civil servants over work-from-home arrangements have been based on weekly occupancy data published by the Cabinet Office that shows the average number of staff working in their departments’ headquarters each day, as a percentage of daily capacity.
The figures do not account for civil servants working outside their HQ on “official business” – such as site visits, external meetings or visits to other offices.
The letter stresses that the changes will not affect reasonable adjustments that have already been agreed based on disability, specific caring responsibilities and “other similar temporary flexibilities” agreed with line managers, including phased returns to work following sick leave.
Existing contractual arrangements will also remain unchanged.
“Up until now, home working patterns and expectations have varied between departments. However, almost four years after the start of the pandemic, it is important that we reflect on our experience and what we have learned,” the letter says.
The letter takes a more conciliatory tone than previous announcements by ministers who pushed for civil servants to spend more time in the office in the immediate wake of the coronavirus lockdowns.
It also gives officials greater scope for hybrid working than some previously mooted plans, including proposals reportedly being considered by Quin in September to limit home working to one day a week.
“We know that flexibility to adjust where and when you work is very important to you and is a feature of modern professional working life across the public and private sectors. And this remains a fundamental element of our approach to work,” it says.
“We also know that fairness is important to you. Setting a consistent balance across departments will help us to achieve this and retain both the benefits of working face to face and the benefits of time working at home.”
However, Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, said the 60% target was "arbitrary" rather than evidence-based and "is an indication of just how regressive this administration is".
"Hard-working civil servants helped to keep this country moving during the pandemic, some in the workplace and some adapting to working at home," he said.
"Homeworking brings huge benefits. It cuts down the amount of travelling time and expense incurred by workers unnecessarily and reduces the nation's carbon footprint... Instead of acting in the interests of corporate landlords and chasing culture war headlines, it should be sitting down with the trade unions to negotiate collectively bargained agreements that enable our members, and society in general to realise the full benefits, of a changed world of work," he added.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “We do not comment on leaks.”