Minister urges officials to end ‘reliance on video meetings’ – but unions hit back at return-to-office demand

Departments told to fill up buildings once again, but representatives claim any insinuations about productivity are ‘nonsense

Credit: Max Pixel

Civil service unions have hit out at “reckless” demands from ministers for officials to return to the office in pre-pandemic numbers following the removal of the work-from-home mandate.

Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay has told government departments to ensure their offices quickly get back to full occupancy, calling for civil servants to “move away from a reliance on video meetings and get back to the benefits of face-to-face, collaborative working”.

In a press release issued last Friday night, Barclay said he wanted to see “maximum use of our office space being made from next week”.

The demands, accompanied by anonymous briefings to the press suggesting that officials working from home have not been working hard, have been slammed by civil service unions, which have called for a more pragmatic approach.

Prospect deputy general Garry Graham said he would “not be taking lectures on hard work from someone whose definition of a work event appears to involve cheese, wine and a garden”.

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“Wherever they have physically worked, our members in the civil service and wider public sector have made an outstanding contribution to keeping us all safe, protected and supported,” Graham said. “To suggest that staff have not been working hard whilst working from home is a nonsense not borne out by the facts. Working hours have increased and, in fact, many staff feel they have been ‘living at work’, with increased levels of stress and burnout.”

PCS has called for a “properly planned approach, which allows the employer and the union to negotiate safe workplace arrangements” rather than a “reckless, headlong rush to increase numbers at workplaces”.

Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm has written to other departmental heads urging them to “support a significant and swift return of staff to the workplace”.

Meanwhile, Barclay is urging ministers to make sure their offices are working at full capacity as soon as possible.

Barclay said: “Now we are learning to live with Covid and have lifted Plan B measures, we need to move away from a reliance on video meetings and get back to the benefits of face-to-face, collaborative working. I’m grateful to the civil service for managing the challenges of the last two years. It is important that we now see the maximum use of our office space being made, as we build a strong recovery after the disruption of the pandemic.”

But Prospect said it expects government employers to lead by example by balancing operational requirements with the needs of staff, “not by mandating arbitrary place of work requirements”.

“Through a pragmatic and managed approach, we can develop a world of work where everyone benefits,” Graham said.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said ministers had failed to recognise that it was government policy for civil servants to sometimes work from home, even before the pandemic.

He told Times Radio: “Most government departments have only got 60% of desks for staff, and that’s reducing in some cases down to 40%, because they are saving millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on office rent.”

Some departments are reportedly planning for employees to work from the office for two or three days per week.

Whilst criticising the government’s demands for departments to return to pre-pandemic levels of office working, unions have welcomed the return to hybrid working following the end of Plan B Covid restrictions this Wednesday.

Prospect said its surveys of members showed officials value the opportunities and flexibility that come with hybrid working, with many “heartily sick” of exclusive home working and increasingly struggling to differentiate between home time and work time.

With cases still high – more than 94.326 were reported yesterday – the Cabinet Office has attempted to reassure staff returning to the office, saying measures such as increased ventilation and cleaning have been put in place. However, it also said there will be no requirement for employers to limit numbers in the workplace.


Sam Trendall

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