Whether civil servants work from home or in the office has become a point of contention. Some ministers have been critical of home working and, as Covid restrictions ease, have demanded more in-person attendance.
Physical co-location can help the effective running of an organisation and it is right to expect civil servants to return to spending more time in the office. But the civil service has also taken advantage of the benefits of flexibility during the pandemic. For example, normalising virtual attendance to meetings has given officials outside London greater opportunity to meaningfully contribute to discussions. An FDA survey last year showed 97% of its members wanted to retain the option to work from home. A happier workforce is a higher performing one; ministers and civil service leaders should not lightly dismiss colleagues’ views.
So while a return to the office should be encouraged, a blanket approach will undermine ministers’ own aims for civil service relocation and damage recruitment plans. It is also directly at odds with long-established plans to reduce the size of the government estate.
Flexible working underpins relocation agenda
In our report Moving Out, the IfG recommended that, in general, it would be most effective for relocated offices to be in big cities. Cities have large, skilled workforces and relocating roles to them will allow talented people who do not want to live or work in London to contribute more effectively to the civil service. Without an adequate supply of highly skilled workers, relocated offices are likely to fail.
The same logic underpins the consolidation of the government’s estate through the “hubs programme”: smaller offices dotted around the country are being closed and roles relocated to bigger, more cost-efficient ones in cities.
However, locating civil servants in cities does not help the government achieve two other goals it has set for the relocation agenda – economically “levelling up” deprived areas and shifting what it perceives as “metropolitan” mindsets by encouraging civil servants to experience life in non-metropolitan areas. This is where a more flexible approach comes in.
Allowing civil servants more flexibility about when they come into the office substantially changes where they can live. Living outside the city where their office is based becomes more attractive – longer commutes are balanced out by having to do them less often, while officials’ pay packets will go further in the towns and villages around big cities than in the cities themselves. With their extra spending power, civil servants will inject more money into the types of local economies that the government wants to “level up”. Furthermore, if living outside metropolitan areas can change civil servants’ mindsets – though our research is cautious about the benefits of this – then these are the types of places that will do so.
Hybrid working is key to recruitment battle
The Declaration on Government Reform commits to encouraging entrants from outside government as well as those with specialist skills. Historically, government has struggled to attract these types of candidates, who often have options for where they can work and may gravitate towards higher paying private and wider public sector jobs.
The civil service will always struggle to compete on salary, so it needs to make itself attractive by matching or going beyond what other sectors can offer in other ways. Hybrid working arrangements in the private sector look set to continue for the long term. Employees say they enjoy this flexibility, so the civil service needs to match this offer to even begin to compete for top talent.
Full return to the office is not possible
Between 2010 and 2019, the size of the government estate shrank by 30% as part of an effort to consolidate government property. During this period, hybrid and home working was promoted as a tool to make the civil service more efficient. Government hubs have been built on the assumption of a low desk-to-employee ratio, while the Government Property Agency said “the Covid-19 response confirmed that, in most cases, desk-based work can be done effectively at home”.
Meanwhile, there are currently more civil servants than there were in 2010, when the coalition government first set out plans to substantially cut staff numbers. Any attempt to get civil servants back into the office has to reckon with the fact that the last decade of estate management and the growth of the civil service since the EU referendum means there are more civil servants than in 2010 but far less office space to put them in.
Common sense is needed about when to come into the office
The government needs to find a balance. It is important that civil servants work in the office when doing so would be beneficial. Civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm has noted that the modern workplace is “much better set up for work than most people’s homes” and that “a certain type of learning from each other is easier done by direct observation and it is difficult to fully replicate that online”. The ease of communication that physical co-location allows for is also important when facing particularly fast-moving or important situations.
But forcing civil servants back into the office full-time will undermine the government’s stated aims for civil service reform and is logistically impossible. The experience of the pandemic showed that there are some benefits to home working. Common sense is needed. The government should not rip up a decade of estate strategy and workforce planning for the sake of a few headlines.
Jordan Urban is a researcher at the Institute for Government