OPINION - 'We're not in lockdown, we should all be spending more time working together in office,' civil servants told

John Glen has urged civil servants to spend more time in the office (PA Archive)
John Glen has urged civil servants to spend more time in the office (PA Archive)

The fourth anniversary of the first UK-wide Covid-19 lockdown has just passed.

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.

I know that being in the office - working 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.

As the Minister responsible for our Civil Service, I am doing everything I can to create the best kind of environment for all civil servants to do their job in the best possible way. Naturally, this includes reasonable arrangements to work from home, which 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.

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.

That’s why I recently set an expectation for staff to be in the office at least 60% of the time, which brings the Civil Service in line with private sector expectations of attendance.

It’s also why I am considering how this expectation can be a part of our senior staff’s obligations, changing the culture from the top down.

I’m 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.

But wherever they are based, civil servants have no reason not to go into the office. I visited one of the Civil Service sites in Sheffield recently, one of the cities in our ‘Places for Growth’ programme, where we announced last week that we are well ahead in delivering our target of moving 22,000 jobs to other UK towns and cities by 2027.

Government hubs like these are thriving centres of great collaborative activity, with space to accommodate civil servants from many different departments. This work ensures that there is a workplace for every civil servant to use, no matter where they call home.

And because many of our Government hubs are interdepartmental, there is a greater opportunity to foster teamwork on major cross-Government projects, like new infrastructure or tackling crime.

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.

John Glen is Cabinet Office minister and Paymaster General