Unions urge a 'what works best' approach on office-attendance

They have also warned against a "one size fits all" policy – but welcome a "more nuanced" attitude towards the issue from ministers
Photo: Jeff Gilbert/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

17 Nov 2023

Unions have warned against a “one size fits all” attitude to flexible working but welcomed the government’s “more nuanced approach” following the confirmation of a new 60% in-office remit for civil servants.

Departments began announcing the change to flexible working rules to staff on Thursday, the day after CSW revealed ministers had directed senior officials to “set and implement an expectation of increased office-based working". 

A letter sent by heads of departments, seen by CSW, said civil servants would need to spend a minimum of 60% of their working time working face to face with their colleagues either in offices or on official business, while some officials – including senior managers and early-career officials – would be asked to work from the office even more often.

Some departments and agencies are committing to the 60% target, while others will keep to lower levels, citing estate constraints, CSW understands.

Responding to the announcement, the FDA and Prospect urged the government to focus on “what works best” rather than “arbitrary top-down quotas”, while PCS said the plan was “based on zero evidence whatsoever”.

The FDA, however, said it was “reassured” by the government’s approach, which follows previous reports in September that the government would seek to limit civil servants to just one day a week working from home. Officials have also faced years of attacks by ministers over home working.

FDA assistant general secretary Amy Leversidge said the FDA has spoken to the Cabinet Office about the issue in recent weeks and has "continued to make the point that approaches to future ways of working should be evidence-led, rather than based on arbitrary top-down quotas”.

“There are obvious benefits to taking a hybrid approach and allowing staff to work in the office some days and at home on other days,” she said.

“What matters is what works, and we have always been clear that home working has never stopped FDA members and their civil service colleagues from delivering the vital public services on which we all rely.”

“However, it is reassuring that clearly a much more nuanced approach is now being taken to this issue than has previously been the case,” she added.

Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, said: “Our members are deeply committed to the delivery of first-class public services.

“Providing staff with a level of flexibility, where operationally possible, has been essential to the civil service being able to recruit and retain the skilled and specialist staff competing in a national and sometimes international market for scarce skills.

“This is about an appropriate balance being set. We have never argued for general exclusive home working but at the same time 100% office attendance has always been a misnomer, given the operational work many civil servants do. The complexity of the workforce and the breadth of the work means that the notion of “one size fits all” for office attendance makes no operational sense.

“What is important is what works best.”

The FDA, Prospect and PCS – which on Wednesday labelled the plans “arbitrary” and “based on zero evidence” – have said they will continue to engage with the Cabinet Office and individual departments on the issue.

Prospect said it is seeking “an appropriate and valued level of flexibility” on a department-by-department basis, while PCS said it will be looking to persuade departments that “genuine, properly managed hybrid-working, underpinned by a collective agreement, continues to offer the best possible approach”.

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