WFH: Unions slam John Glen's 'political attack' on civil servants

Civil service unions accuse minister for the Cabinet Office of ‘pillorying’ civil servants and ‘trashing the brand for cheap headlines’
Glen said civil servants are "still working from home too much". Photo: Adobe Stock

By Tevye Markson

17 Apr 2024

Unions have slammed comments from John Glen, the minister for the Cabinet Office, criticising civil servants for "still working from home too much" and “languishing in lockdown habits for too long”.

The comments were made by Glen in a column for the Evening Standard, published yesterday.

Glen's piece and an accompanying news story splashed the newspaper’s front page on Tuesday, which featured an image of Big Ben adorned with a banner with the letters ‘WFH’, and a headline which asked: “Why are civil servants so lazy?”

Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of Prospect, which represents specialist civil servants, told CSW that Prospect “does not recognise the picture painted in the Evening Standard of civil servants “languishing at home” and refusing to come into the office”.

“Our members in the civil service work tirelessly to defend, protect, support and enhance the lives of citizens. Many cannot work from home because of their operational responsibilities. Others spend much time out of the office visiting sites and meeting with stakeholders. Where they do have some flexibility to work from home, it is anchored in meeting the operational demands of their jobs.

“It is time we thanked civil servants for the important work that they do rather than pillorying them.”

Fran Heathcote, general secretary of PCS, which is the biggest civil service union and represents mostly junior officials, said Glen should concentrate on improving civil servants’ pay and working conditions “rather than make political attacks on the very people that keep his government running”.

“Our members worked hard throughout the pandemic and continue to work hard now,” she told CSW.

Heathcote added that “there’s no evidence that working from home lessens productivity”.

“In fact, many people say it makes them more productive because they have a better work-life balance and begin work feeling fresher because they haven’t had a stressful commute,” she said.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior officials, warned Glen’s comments will not help the government in its aims to recruit top talent to the civil service.

He said "trashing the brand for cheap headlines and limiting flexible working isn't going to attract the talent they say they want to".

In Glen’s column, he said “some parts of society still bear the marks of our lockdowns”, referencing the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions in 2020 and 2021 which led to more home working than ever before. “One of those places is the civil service and the wider public sector, where there is one lockdown habit remaining which we must act on: people are still working from home too much," he said.

“Working from home should always be the exception and not the rule,” Glen added.

“Some civil servants have been languishing in lockdown habits for too long. It’s time to get back to the office – on the Tube, on the train, on the bike or on foot – and start living in 2024.”

Glen said working in the office alongside colleagues “can help people be more productive and help them overcome complex tasks more efficiently, and is particularly helpful for the development of more junior staff”.

He said working from home “certainly has its benefits…but four years on, there are still team members across the civil service that only come in on the odd day”.

“I can’t believe I have to make this point, but we are not in lockdown anymore, and we should all be spending more time working together in the office,” he added.

“This isn’t ideological, this is practical: there are clear benefits to people working in the office – not just for the government as a whole but for individual civil servants and their wellbeing and careers.”

The Cabinet Office recently introduced guidance starting civil servants should spend at least 60% of their time in offices or face-to-face with colleagues. Glen said this brings the civil service “in line with private sector expectations of attendance”.

Both Glen's piece and the Standard's accompanying news story included occupancy rates at department headquarters from the final week of March, which show levels were between 63% and 93%. 

Prospect said it is “telling that the figures they used come from the week before Easter and even then occupancy was generally above the government’s own target”.

Despite arguing that civil servants are not coming into offices enough, Glen said in the Standard piece that he is "pleased to say London is leading the way, with occupancy above 60% in all Whitehall government headquarters".

"And not to toot my own occupancy horn but my department – the Cabinet Office – is almost at 100%. Clearly, the in-person benefits are being seized in the capital," he added.

 

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