Civil servants at the Department for Education have described being demoralised and "let down" by instructions to spend four days a week in the office, and by what they see as a failure by top officials to defend them from political attack.
Officials used an all-staff Teams call yesterday to implore the department’s leaders to rethink guidance put out this week saying 80:20 hybrid working arrangements should be the norm.
The guidance says there is “flexibility” for staff to request a 60:40 split instead, subject to their line manager’s approval, and for the right to work less time in the office in exceptional circumstances.
DfE permanent secretary Susan Acland-Hood acknowledged staff may find it “hard to believe” that the drive to increase their office-working hours is to increase productivity and collaboration, and not in response to political pressure.
The strength of feeling on the work-from-home row was reflected in the number of civil servants who upvoted questions submitted to the Teams call demanding an explanation for the change.
More than 1,100 people upvoted a submission asking why DfE was demanding its staff spend more time in the office than other departments, including the Cabinet Office.
“DfE has put in place a detrimental policy that is not being imposed across Whitehall,” it read. “Has the senior leadership in DfE acted hastily and in poor judgement by forcing colleagues to return to the office and not defending them from unfounded attacks from media and ministers?”
Acland-Hood responded by saying that every ministry was “now starting to push quite a lot harder” for staff to return to the office some of the time “and to make it feel quite a lot less optional”.
She acknowledged that “we’re asking a little bit more than many departments”, although she expected it to be “common” for people to opt to reduce their time in the office to 60%.
“There's a lot of departments who are asking for two to three [days in the office]; quite a lot of them are shifting the emphasis to three, away from ‘anything up to two is absolutely fine for everybody’,” she said.
The perm sec said that after taking “a much more flexible approach” to hybrid working a few months ago, several departments had found there were too few people in their buildings at any one time to deliver the “benefits of collaboration” that office working provides.
Questions submitted to the call, seen by CSW, showed staff were anxious that further changes to working conditions could be coming.
One, upvoted more than 500 times, asked: “The department has changed its flexible-working policy following media criticism and political pressure. What assurances are there that other areas of flexible working (eg flexi time) won’t be changed if there is media scrutiny?”
Others noted that some staff who had enjoyed more flexible working patterns pre-Covid were now facing restrictive arrangements. One staffer said they had “never felt so angry” because they had been told their team’s previous pattern of spending one or two days in the office a week was no longer acceptable.
One DfE official who listened to the call said they felt the department was handling the issue “very poorly”.
“I’m super cheesed off. I know several people who are planning on leaving because of this and I will probably be one of them,” they told CSW.
“I think there's definitely a few things here that have upset a lot of people. One is the fact that this feels very much like a political move. Jacob Rees-Mogg has gone out into the press and done a song and dance based on very questionable data… this feels like a knee jerk reaction to that. It is very much at odds with what we're seeing around the rest of the civil service.”
The long-serving official added that staff “don't feel that we are being defended” and that the perm sec’s first priority should be her duty of care to staff.
They said the guidance was creating a “toxic atmosphere” where officials had become jealous of others who were not coming in for the mandated number of days a week – even though they have legitimate reasons for not doing so.
They noted that on a previous call about in-office working, Acland-Hood had referred to teachers having to travel to their workplace and that civil servants shouldn't get special treatment. They said the current ruling on returning to the office “felt like a punishment” and not about productivity at all. “It came across like, well, I've asked you all to come in two, three days a week, you’ve not been doing it. So this is now the punishment.”
Staff feeling 'let down and alienated by leadership'
Several questions related to public criticism of civil servants who work from home, with officials saying they were disappointed that departmental leadership had not publicly rebutted attacks by ministers and in the media.
One submission asking what DfE was doing to rebuild trust, which attracted more than 1,200 upvotes, read: “The morale of my team (and I’m sure many others) is at an all-time low following unfair criticism of civil servants and the DfE response.”
Another said people were planning to leave their jobs “not just because of the new hybrid working framework, but because of a loss of trust in the senior leadership as a result”.
A third said officials felt “massively let down and alienated by leadership who wouldn’t defend them”. By way of contrast, they noted that Home Office perm sec Matthew Rycroft had responded to criticism of HM Passport Office by releasing a statement saying the work locations of staff had “zero bearing” on their productivity.
Acland-Hood noted that education secretary Nadhim Zahawi had “at no point said that he didn't think people were trying hard or doing a good job or doing their best”.
“He does not subscribe to the view that somehow working from home is equivalent to laziness, but he does genuinely believe that there are benefits from coming together and collaborating,” Acland-Hood said.
Two weeks ago, Zahawi said he wanted DfE staff to return to pre-pandemic working patterns “immediately”. He told MPs his department had done “incredible work” under “incredibly difficult circumstances” during the pandemic, but said “we’ve got to do better” on office working.
Acland-Hood said evidence suggests that for “more nuanced, more creative and more complex tasks… our network benefits from coming together and seeing each other and there are also benefits for engagement and socialising”.
“I completely understand why you find it hard to believe that those are the reasons that we're doing this, when we’re doing this in an environment where what we read in the papers is a set of political drives about this,” she said.
“There will be people at the other end of this call thinking, ‘Well, is she just saying that because she’s the permanent secretary and she’s got to do what politicians tell her to do? Or perhaps worse… she's failed to tell the politicians what she should have about how we can work?”
DfE’s new guidance comes after government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said civil servants who had worked from home during the Covid pandemic should make a “rapid return” to the office.
Internal figures he sent to ministers – which appeared to relate only to departments’ London headquarters – showed DfE had Whitehall’s lowest office attendance, with around one in four officials in each day in the first week of April.
Acland Hood said: “I will defend to my last breath, with politicians, the hard work and the success of people in this department... I don't spend a lot of time defending the people in this department from our secretary of state because he doesn't spend a lot of his time attacking them… and it's partly, by the way, because we've done really great things.
“It's not impossible to believe that people have worked really hard and well from home and on hugely impressive things, but also that that could be improved on yet further by also making sure that as we can, we take the opportunities to come together.”
Addressing concerns about rock-bottom morale in some teams, she said “listening and hearing from you is one important step” to building trust with the department. “I’d like to keep hearing what would help on that.”
“I want to listen and I want to carry on listening to people and I really do understand the doubt and the scepticism and how difficult it feels.”
Addressing officials on the call alongside Acland-Hood, Skills Group director general Paul Kett said people’s “loss of trust” in management had come up in several conversations he had had with colleagues.
“I'm sorry we are in this position, but I think the fact that we're able to have these conversations about how people are feeling and how we focus on making it work in the right way, using those flexibilities, hearing from one another... I hope that starts to rebuild some of the morale I know we've lost, because what we do really matters,” he said.
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