ONS staff back strike action over office-working demand

After a ballot of 600 civil servants, workers at the Office for National Statistics have ‘overwhelmingly’ supported industrial action, according to the PCS union – which has now requested urgent talks

Civil servants at the Office for National Statistics have voted “overwhelmingly” to take industrial action in response to being told to be in the office for 40% of the week, the PCS union has announced.

More than eight out of ten officials who voted in the ballot backed industrial action, with 73% voting in favour of strike action, and 84% supporting action short of strike. The legal turnout threshold of 50% was just about reached, with 600 civil servants taking part in the ballot – exactly half of those balloted. As of Friday, PCS had approached ONS to request urgent talks to resolve the dispute.

The ballot, which ended last week, was prompted by a hybrid working directive by ONS to insist that staff spend at least two days a week in the office. The policy was announced in November 2023, the same month in which ministers ordered senior civil servants to increase in-office working, with staff expected to spend at least 60% of their time in the office subject to “estate capacity”.

Fran Heathcote, general secretary of PCS, said: “ONS bosses have seriously undermined the trust and goodwill of their staff by seeking to drive this policy through in such a heavy-handed way, heedless of the consequences. They now need to immediately pause implementation of the policy and talk to us about reaching a sensible resolution of this issue, which does not carelessly disadvantage staff.”

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The ONS policy has been “imposed on staff, when previously there had been no requirement to spend a specific amount of time in offices, following the move to home and hybrid-working” according to PCS.

The union said there had previously been “regular reassurances” that flexible working arrangements would remain the same. ONS officials had “followed this model in good faith and built their lives around it.”

However, staff are now expected to spend a minimum of 40% in the office from this month. This will result in considerable disruption, especially for those with childcare and other caring arrangements, PCS said.

It added: “Management presented no evidence-based business case for their U-turn and have refused the unions’ request to consider a more gradual and flexible transition.”

Responding to the ballot result and the comments from PCS, a spokesperson for the ONS said: “The ONS has had a hybrid working model for some years, in line with the wider civil service, and we believe firmly that our flexible hybrid working plans remain in the best interests of the ONS and all our colleagues. There are robust plans in place across the organisation to mitigate against disruption and maintain essential services should any industrial action take place. The UK Statistics Authority has established channels for trade union discussion and engagement which continue to be active and in use.  We will continue talking with PCS as part of our ongoing engagement.”

Jonathan Owen

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