Cabinet Office minister says office attendance should be ‘default’ – but others back homeworking benefits

Records show ministers at many departments support hybrid model, despite recent criticism from Cabinet Office colleague

Credit: Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay 

After Cabinet Office minister Jeremey Quin said that working from the office should be the “default” for civil servants, records show that many other ministers have asserted that homeworking has not hindered officials’ productivity.

Speaking in the House of Commons last week, Quin said: “There are occasions when that is the right approach, but the default position should be working together in the office space. We believe that means we get more out of employees, there is better productivity and it is a better experience for those working together in that team environment.”

But recent response to parliamentary questions show that a number of Quin’s ministerial colleagues have outlined how hybrid working has contributed to achieving key targets, while productivity has been maintained across the civil service.

In answer to questions from independent MP Julian Knight, ministers in HM Treasury, the Ministry of Defence, Department for Education, Ministry of Justice and Department for Work and Pensions have all rejected notions that remote working has harmed productivity

Knight, who was suspended as a Conservative MP last year, asked ministers for their assessment of the impact of occupancy rates on department’s performance in May 2023, referring to civil service headquarters occupancy data that has been gathered since February 2022.

Gareth Davies, exchequer secretary to HM Treasury, said: “Occupancy rate and hybrid working does not affect the department’s ability to deliver high quality work.”

The Treasury’s hybrid working policy requires staff to attend the office for 50% of their working week, he added.

Schools minister Nick Gibb said the DfE’s approach to hybrid working “has supported productive and efficient working between officials and ministers to deliver on priorities”. He said the department is currently asking staff about their experiences with hybrid working so it can “further develop its approach” to “ensure it remains effective”.

Mike Freer, a minister at the MoJ, said the occupancy level of the department’s HQ building “does not impact the ability of the department to carry out its key functions”.

He said the department’s “approach to hybrid working, blending workplace and home working, has supported officials to carry out vital work across skills, schools and families” The MoJ’s hybrid working policy allows staff to work away from the HQ building “subject to business need”.

MoD minister Dr Andrew Murrison said there is “no evidence to suggest any impact on performance across the department as a result of MoD headquarters occupancy rates”. The MoD has consistently had one of the highest attendance levels of all departments at its main HQ in the last 12 months.

Similar conclusions have been found across government, according to DWP minister Mims Davies.

She said the DWP did not have data to measure the impact of occupancy in May 2023 on its performance but “broader research conducted across the civil service has considered the impact of hybrid working on productivity and found that overall productivity is being maintained”.

The monitoring of department HQ occupancy was ordered by Rees-Mogg last year as part of a drive to increase civil service office attendance post-pandemic.

PCS union general secretary Mark Serwotka has called for Rees-Mogg and Johnson to apologise for attacks on civil servants over working from home.

“The attack on homeworking was always a political attempt to justify an unjustifiable attack on our hard-working members,” Serwotka told Yahoo News. “This new evidence backs up what we’ve always said: that homeworking does not have any impact on productivity. Perhaps Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, both of whom accused homeworkers of being lazy, should apologise for their slurs and accept they have lost the homeworking argument once and for all.”

Hybrid working has support within the civil service at all grades. A study by the Blavatnik School for Government last year found 89% of civil servants are satisfied with remote and hybrid work arrangements and would like to continue working this way in the future. A more recent poll by civil service unions the FDA and Prospect found six in ten senior officials would turn down a promotion if the role didn’t allow for flexible/remote working.

Under former prime minister Boris Johnson’s leadership, however, ministers frequently and strongly criticised homeworking in the civil service as flexible working practices became more commonplace across the economy, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This included Johnson himself saying working from home “doesn’t work” and calling for a return to the workplace to “drive up productivity” in May 2022. A month earlier, his minister for government efficiency, Jacob Rees-Mogg told ministers to send a “clear message” to officials that they should not be working from home and left notes on civil servants desks which said: “I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon”.

Beckie Smith and Tevye Markson

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