'Get back to the office': Minister's rebuke to civil servants still working from home

 (Christian Adams/ES)
(Christian Adams/ES)

Civil servants still “languishing in lockdown habits” of working from home were told by a senior minister to “get back to the office”.

Cabinet Office minister John Glen stressed that working from home should be the “exception and not the rule”.

In a hard-hitting intervention, he bluntly told some civil servants in Whitehall and in regions outside London that they “are still working from home too much”.

Britain went into an unprecedented lockdown in March 2020 as Covid swept across the country, with the capital being one of the hardest hit areas.

Writing in The Standard today, Mr Glen said: “I don’t need to remind anyone how severe that time was for Londoners, or how, as Tube trains stood empty and Oxford Street heard no footfall, we all had to change how we lived and how we worked.

“Today, our lives have mostly returned to how they were before the pandemic, yet some parts of society still bear the marks of our lockdowns.

“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 stressed that four years on from the first lockdown some civil servants still “only come in on the odd day” into Whitehall.

“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.

Tuesday’s Standard front page (Evening Standard)
Tuesday’s Standard front page (Evening Standard)

Civil Service headquarters occupancy fluctuates.

But data for the March 25 week showed the daily average staff rate at HM Revenue and Customs was 53 per cent.

The tax office sparked controversy last month with plans to shut the self-assessment helpline between April and September with customers instead directed to online services, before it was forced into a U-turn.

For other Whitehall departments/offices the occupancy rates for the March 25 week were:

* 60 per cent, Scotland Office

* 62 per cent, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, down from the mid 80s per cent for previous weeks.

* 63 per cent, Department for Culture, Media and Sport

* 67 per cent, Department for Work and Pensions

* 67 per cent, Northern Ireland Office

* 69 per cent, Treasury

* 70 per cent, Department for Transport

* 71 per cent, Home Office

* 93 per cent, Cabinet Office having been 98 per cent at start of March

* 91 per cent, Ministry of Justice

* 88 per cent, Ministry of Defence

Mr Glen, whose ministerial responsibilities include civil service modernisation, stressed that working alongside colleagues can be more productive, including on complex tasks, and helps junior staff to develop, as well as more broadly benefit people’s careers and well-being.

He emphasised: “Working from home should always be the exception and not the rule.

“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.”

Civil servants in some regional offices are even more reluctant to give up the working from home culture.

Ministers expect staff to be in the office at least 60 per cent of the time, similar to many private sector firms though other businesses increasingly want staff to reduce working from home even more.

An HMRC spokesperson said: “We expect all office-based colleagues to now spend 60 per cent of their working time in the office.

“Hybrid working is part of our approach to being a modern and flexible employer like many other organisations and means that we can attract and retain the talent we need to deliver for our customers.”

A UK Government spokesperson said: “There is agreement across government on there being clear benefits from face-to-face, collaborative working and departments across government remain committed to having staff working in offices at pre-pandemic levels.”