The Impact of the Civil Servant Home Working Crackdown
The government’s efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has publicly called for the “rapid return” of civil servants to their desks in Whitehall now that Covid-19 restrictions have ended.
Rees-Mogg circulated an office occupancy league table of all 16 Whitehall departments, which revealed the Department for Education topped the list with 25% of staff attending the office at the start of April, followed by the Department for Work and Pensions at 27%, and the Foreign Office at 33%.
Reports amplified after Rees-Mogg left notes in empty Whitehall workspaces containing the message: “Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.”
Labour MPs dubbed the move “passive-aggressive” and “patronising”, and despite a cabinet split over the drive to stop home working and Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Nadine Dorries labelling the move “Dickensian”, Rees-Mogg received support from Downing Street.
“What the minister is seeking to achieve is to do everything possible to get the civil service to return to the pre-pandemic level,” said the PM’s spokesperson. “We are not talking about putting an end to flexible working, which continues to have a place in the modern workplace, we are talking about returning to pre-pandemic use of taxpayer-funded departmental buildings.”
As well as receiving criticism from Conservative MPs and the opposition, civil service unions have expressed their dismay at recommendations to remove public sector home working.
General secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), Mark Serwotka, said: “For over two years, often under the government’s own instruction, many of our members have demonstrated that they can do their job from home. The suggestion that they’ve been ‘sitting at home’ is deeply insulting…they should embrace the benefits of hybrid working and make good on their promise to build back better.”
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA representing senior civil servants, commented: “It’s ludicrous that civil servants are being counted with clickers. Ministers should be concentrating on what’s being delivered, not numbers at desks.”
Penman also highlighted the potential impact such a move could have on the perception of becoming a civil servant, declaring that “good people will leave and the civil service brand is trashed in a highly competitive employment market”.
Back in February, researcher at the Institute for Government Jordan Urban penned an article on why it would be wrong to force civil servants back to the office full-time, stating: “The civil service will always struggle to compete on salary with the private and wider public sector, and so needs to make itself attractive by matching or going beyond what other sectors can offer in other ways.
“More flexibility around hybrid working arrangements in the private sector looks set to continue for the long term. Employees say they enjoy this flexibility. So the civil service needs to match the offer of its competitors to even begin to compete for top talent. Reducing opportunities for hybrid working would undermine these attempts.”
Removing the option for civil servants to work from home could have repercussions for the wider public sector and couldn’t come at a worse time for its employers. At the end of March, the government published its framework for pay awards in 2022-23, which stated departments could offer pay increases of 2% on average, with the chance to top up by a further 1% if organisations or departments can prove it will help to improve staff retention and productivity. However, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecasts, inflation is set to rise by close to 9% by the end of the year, effectively equating to a real-term pay cut for public sector workers.
With pay increases capped below inflation and threats of flexible working coming to an end on the horizon, public sector employers face increased challenges to secure the skills they need in an increasingly competitive talent market.
As a technology talent provider for the public and non-profit sectors, Global Resourcing will follow all developments in home working closely to determine the impact any moves may have on our clients and candidates and help them to adapt accordingly.
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