Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
The Covid pandemic accelerated the trend of Civil Servants working from home. Tens of thousands are still doing so. The EU has recently told its citizens to work from home three days per week to reduce EU reliance on Russian energy resources.
Meanwhile, the UK has Jacob Rees- Mogg, the Minister for Government Efficiency, Steve Barclay, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Nadhim Zahawi , the Education Secretary, seeking to reduce working from home “by firm persuasion”. When Jacob Rees-Mogg’s survey was undertaken at the beginning of April, it showed the Department of Education as having the largest proportion – 80 percent- of Civil Servants working from home. It was clear Zahawi had to get his senior Civil Servants back to their offices.
Jacob Rees-Mogg has made the important point that where Civil Servants work predominately from home, they lose out on the by-products of working in an office atmosphere. This covers monitoring, evaluation, supervision of staff, transmission of skills, development of younger colleagues and innovative thinking.
Minsters must back up their officials and be prepared to face down the trade unions. Part of the reason for Civil Servants continuing to wish to work from home is the financial benefits – train fares that are saved can be as much as £500 per month. Female Civil Servants especially can save on childcare, which constitutes a large incentive to remaining out of the office.
The Department of Education was followed by the Department of Work and Pensions at 27 percent and the Foreign Office at 31 percent. Compare that with with International Trade at 73 percent and the Department of Health and Social Care at percent. An average of only 44 percent of Civil Servants were working from their Departmental office.
Prior to Covid, average staff occupancy was around 80 percent but with the silent majority of officials “not pulling their weight”. The Civil Service is still out of step with the rest of the county getting back to ‘normal’. The attempt has been to make the pandemic phase of working from home a new norm.
Civil Service Departments have also each issued how much time staff are expected to work in government buildings. This is two days per week. By far the most strident attack on the Civil Service regime has come from Sir Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee. “It is time for the managers of the Civil Service to get a grip and do their job by forcing staff to return to their offices in greater numbers,” he has said. “It is simply unacceptable for so many of our public servants to continue sitting at home”.
The problem with the Foreign Office’s handling of the evacuation from Afghanistan was proof of the damage working from home can do. Hybrid working has also been to blame for the problems with lorry licences backlog at the Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency, which had a Covid outbreak in 2020.
Not all jobs need to be done in the office, but it is undeniable that those people working in the office and interacting with different contacts are the more efficient. Working from a shed or spare room is harder and reduces productivity.
Being a Civil Servant means taking on a commitment to the public good. The very term Civil Service denotes a body of officials whose job is to serve the state and general public. By long tradition in Britain, Civil Servants work anonymously, with the reward coming at the end of a career with a generous pension and sometimes an honour. During Covid, by necessity, much of the Civil Service work has been done by people working from home. But now the restrictions have been lifted, office-workers should be returning to their offices.
Working from home has a significant additional productivity cost. New young recruits need to experience the office atmosphere, interacting directly with their managers and not marooned at home with only a Zoom contact. Some Departments haven’t even got their canteen facilities operating and some still insist on masks. Staff wanting to come into the office are discouraged from doing so by others who fear this will make it harder for them to stay at home!
It is time for the managers of the Civil Service to get to grips and to do their jobs. Steve Barclay has apparently given an unambiguous instruction to this effect, but it is not being properly followed. We need regime change. Wherever possible Civil Servants must be required to be in the office at least a majority of days per week and to be told they will be in breach of their contracts if they are not. If people are paid a London weighting but never actually go to London then they must lose and repay this.
There is also no longer a pay differential in favour of Private Sector employment. And at an average pay of £28,600 p.a. this will produce a Public Sector Pension of £17,563 but a Private Sector Pension of only £6,412. The number of Civil Servants earning £100,000 and more has increased considerably more than the increases for support staff. Criticism is made of one rule for the professional class and another, less generous one for workers and teachers.
Up to three quarters of staff are still working from home. Jacob Rees Mogg has written to all Secretaries of State advising that they must send a clear message to civil servants about ending the work from home culture. To do so is necessary for the British state to function as it should.