Remote working: Over half of top civil servants concerned about surveillance

Study finds 57% of leading officials believe their employer might put in place monitoring technology or policies

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Almost three-quarters of civil service leaders believe working remotely during the pandemic has given them a better work-life balance but a majority also fear the introduction of new technology to monitor their out-of-office activities, according to a survey.

The findings are contained in research from public-sector leaders’ union the FDA, which brings together responses from nearly 1,500 members who were asked about their experiences of homeworking over the past 15 months.

Some 73% percent of respondents said they had a better work-life balance because of remote working and 75% believed they were just as engaged with the priorities and objectives of their department as they would have been if they were physically there. 

The survey results also showed that officials increasingly felt trusted to work remotely. Before the pandemic, 69% said they felt trusted to work away from the office but the proportion is now 92%.

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Despite that increase in trust, 57% of survey respondents said they were worried their employer might introduce new technology or policies to monitor their work.  Meanwhile a significant minority of respondents (45%) said they found it more difficult to “switch off” when they were working remotely and 49% reported feeling more isolated because of remote working. 

The survey found 38% of members were keen to get back to the office to “make connections and network” while 42% were worried their career progression had been “halted” because they had not been seen in the office. 

FDA national officer Victoria Jones, who leads on the union’s Future World of Work project which the survey feeds into, said the future of remote working was “clearly” on the minds of members and colleagues.

“Covid-19 has exacerbated many of the existing problems faced by our members – not least excessive working hours and ever-increasing workloads – and it has also presented a whole host of new challenges as public servants have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep our vital public services going,” she said. “However, it has also given us an opportunity to reflect on our priorities and the new ways of working that came about out of necessity.”

Jones added: “The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a quiet revolution in working practices, and we now want to work with the government and individual employers to ensure we grasp this opportunity to make the world of work more flexible and inclusive, and to establish a better work-life balance for our members.”

The FDA said that most members (51%) did not want to be saddled with a set pattern of when to work from home and when to be in the office, but instead wanted the flexibility to manage those issues for themselves.

Two thirds of respondents said they would turn down a promotion if it did not allow flexible or remote working, while 68% said they would not relocate for work.

Respondents were less clear cut on whether they would attend an office in order to get a location allowance, with 31% saying they would and 46% saying they wouldn’t.

Anonymous quotes included alongside the FDA’s research findings found one union member urging permanent secretaries and director generals to continue working from home for at least part of the week to “send the message” that remote working was appropriate for even the highest-ranking officials.

Another reported that they went “in cycles” of feeling it was OK to work from home but then feeling the need to have more collaborative working, suggesting that a hybrid model for remote working was “the realistic way to go”.

Other members complained that working from home made them feel like they were always at work and that the flexibilities ushered in by the coronavirus pandemic had been accompanied by growing expectations that they would work outside of normal hours and at weekends.


Sam Trendall

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