As ministers urge civil servants back to the office, we need more nuance and less petty politics

As Jacob Rees-Mogg tours offices likes a prefect taking register, he would be better advised to talk to staff about what they are doing to support the country and his government
Photo: Boyce Duprey/Flickr

By Garry Graham

21 Apr 2022

The thought of Jacob Rees-Mogg scurrying round Whitehall like a modern-day Wee Willie Winkie, peering in windows and through key holes to jot down how many staff are “in” to establish who is on the naughty step is beyond parody. That he equates productivity and delivery with a “bums on office seats” mentality really does make me question the value for money of his expensive education.

His endeavours have been accompanied by selective briefings to the press, alternating between blaming feckless staff or beastly unions for lack of vim and vigour with regard to a return to halcyon pre covid times in terms of office attendance. No reflection, no insight, no understanding as to how the world of work is changing and how the civil service both attracts talent and gets the best out of the staff it has. If your definition of productivity and effectiveness is bums on office seats, you really need to go on a course – and that needs to be in person.

What has been lost in this lust for headlines and knocking copy is the need for a nuanced and sophisticated conversation at employer level as to what works best operationally. It is unfortunate that Rees-Mogg has refused for his letter to ministers to be shared with unions, though it appears he has been far keener for it to be shared with the Mail and the Telegraph. An odd approach, given we are told that the letter highlights the importance of “collaboration and engagement”. And lets be clear – we are prepared to meet Rees-Mogg any time, any place and anywhere and face to face.

In advance of any meeting, let's scotch some of the myths being propagated. Firstly, Prospect and no other union (I am aware of), is advocating carte blanche exclusive working from home (though recognising the civil service has always had a small number of jobs where an individual’s home is their base, often as a result of cost-cutting measures).

Working from home has not been the nirvana that some in the media suggest. During the depths of the pandemic, we saw relationships break down (email and Zoom don’t do nuance), people feeling increasingly isolated, many staff having to work in sub-optimal accommodation at home, increased blurring of the lines between work and personal lives, challenges around mental health and wellbeing and real issues about how you gain experience and build social capital from behind a screen.

The pandemic has reinforced the feeling that work is a social endeavour. Many I speak to have missed the casual social interaction that lightens many of our days. Where difficult, complex or tough decisions need to be made, face-to-face engagement is always more effective and appropriate. Providing leadership and support, particularly to operational staff who have been attending workplaces throughout the pandemic, was always more effective in person. Actually, the pandemic has forced us to think about how teams and how leadership work – because pre pandemic, we can all think of working in offices where none of the above happened, when it should have.

False polarities are being posited: exclusive WFH vs “back to pre-pandemic office levels of attendance”. The most appropriate path for most will be in that nuanced, complex middle ground.

Over the past number of years, the civil service has lauded its competitive advantage in the labour market by being able to offer flexible working arrangements. It conceded arguments about pay years ago. Even before the pandemic, we were warning that employers in the wider economy had cottoned on to the importance of enabling staff to work flexibly and the civil service should not be complacent. During the pandemic, and as we edge out of it, the pace of change amongst other employers in the private sector has only accelerated. People are now seeing they can get better pay and access to flexible working arrangements in other parts of the economy and some are voting with their feet.

We need more light and less posturing. Wherever they have been working, staff have been and are working hard and effectively. I know some employers, who were traditionally suspicious about flexible working and staff having the ability to work from home, to be new converts to workplace flexibility. I also get it when ministers want senior official physically on hand – and if I were advising a minister I would want to do it face to face to advise on complex and difficult issues.

I suspect Rees-Mogg knows better, but he is on political manoeuvres. As he tours offices likes some deputy senior school prefect taking register, he would be better advised to talk to staff about what they are doing to support the country and his government – and what has happened to their pay over the past decade and the impact on them and their families of the cost-of-living crisis. He could also thank staff for their contribution over the pandemic whilst they obeyed the law and worked really hard whilst others were sending out for booze in No.10, having parties and dancing in its basement.

There is a sensible way forward that works for the civil service and for staff. It can be achieved most effectively if ministers stop playing petty politics and instead there is constructive engagement with unions like Prospect.

Garry Graham is deputy general secretary of Prospect

Read the most recent articles written by Garry Graham - Civil service leaders must join the chorus and stand up for their staff on pay


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