Ministers' 60% in-office drive has no bearing on reality

Government's in-office mandate isn't backed by evidence and is a pitch to a voter base that doesn't understand how modern workplaces work
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By Dave Penman

12 Jan 2024

In Douglas Adams’ classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings designed Deep Thought, the most powerful computer ever made – with one exception – to come up with the Answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

It took 7.5m years and, of course, the answer was 42.

In the civil service, it would appear our “ultimate question” is what proportion of time should be spent in the office. I’ll let the jokes write themselves about ministers and Deep Thought, but their answer – 60 – is equally perplexing.Hybrid working is hardly a new phenomenon.

The reduction in the Whitehall estate since 2010 and the development of hubs by HM Revenue and Customs and other departments are predicated on agile working. Reduce the size of the estate (saving, you know, hundreds of millions of taxpayer pounds), have flexible high-quality workplaces and bingo jingo, everyone is happy – taxpayer, civil servant and management.

When the plans for the Places for Growth programme were first developed, this was again based on the premise that people could work flexibly across multiple locations. Senior roles could be moved out of London because you didn’t need to be in the same location as other members of your team, or even ministers.

It was a journey on which the civil service was already well under way and one of the few competitive advantages it had in the employment market, given how far behind it is on pay. It’s one of the reasons why it was able to pivot so quickly under lockdown to home working.

Across the economy, often in areas that had a less well-travelled path on flexible working, the lockdown demonstrated that employers could still make money and deliver whilst staff had greater flexibility.Organisations across the globe are struggling to work out what suits best.

It was clear to me early on that this was a profound shift in the dynamic of employment for some. The Great Resignation in the United States may be overstated at times, but it meant workers were choosing employers who offered flexibility. Work-life balance was suddenly a greater feature of the employment offer. If employees had demonstrated that they could still deliver the same for their employer but not have to come into the office every day, why were they being forced to?

What was being produced, rather than where, was a question many organisations had never even contemplated.It’s even more difficult in complex organisations like the civil service. Nearly half a million staff, several hundred different employers doing very different work. Tens of thousands of different roles, teams and locations. Staff in the same team, never mind directorate or location, may be able to work differently depending on their role.

As is widely recognised, different jobs have different requirements at different times. Those new to a role, employer or even employment, might benefit from different arrangements. Managers may have different demands from those they manage. Add in for good measure geographically-dispersed teams, the complexities of hot desking arrangements and individual preferences and ways of working. It’s an area of management that is focused on the micro rather than macro.

For every anecdote on how this has transformed the work-life balance, there will be one where the lack of structure and contact is demotivating. There are countless good and bad examples of how this is operating. In sort, it is, as my daughter says, “trifficult”.

What isn’t trifficult though, is working out that a top-down politically-motivated diktat is not the solution. There is no evidence that 60% is the answer. We know because we’ve asked repeatedly. There is some evidence that hybrid is better than full remote working, but beyond that there is no magic number. And 60% has quite literally been plucked from thin air by ministers to suit their political agenda.

Civil servants know that the 60% has absolutely no bearing on the reality of their working practice. Whether they prefer a balance one way or the other, the 60% rule only demonstrates that whoever came up with it does not understand – and probably does not care – whether it is practical, manageable or preferable.

Ministers can talk wistfully about collaboration and watercooler moments. Those absolutely have their place in a workplace dynamic. Working out how and when to create those, to bring meaning to the benefits of the office, is exactly what management need to do. As has been said by wiser people than me, neither a bottom-up nor top-down approach to these issues works.

I do not pretend that the current state of play is ideal for everyone, far from it. But the 60% rule has nothing to do with this. It is simply a stick to beat the feckless wokerati with, and play to a voting base that similarly doesn’t understand the modern world of work or public services.

And like all of those attacks – which are clearly coming back into vogue as an election approaches – it simply further undermines the morale of half a million public servants, at a time when the country needs the opposite from its elected leaders.

Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA union

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