Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay has ordered all government departments to step up efforts to force civil servants back to their offices in England after the “work from home” coronavirus guidance was lifted this week.
Barclay is set to tell mandarins to put in place measures to “monitor office use” to bring government workers back to their “normal, pre-pandemic arrangements” in a move that prompted anger from one public sector union.
The minister said he wanted the civil service to “lead the way” in a drive which could encourage the private sector to follow suit. The government announced on Wednesday that it would not seek to renew most of the coronavirus restrictions, known as Plan B measures, after they expired on January 26. But it scrapped the working from home guidance immediately.
“It is expected that civil servants and other office workers returning to the office will bring economic benefits for businesses across the country, with sandwich shops and the hospitality sector due to see a dramatic increase in footfall,” Barclay said.
The move comes as many companies and organisations have started to allow “hybrid working” whereby staff carry out their duties from the office and at home at different times of the week.
The switch to homeworking during the pandemic led to millions of square feet of office space falling vacant with some converted to other uses, such as residential. Property agents do not expect that situation to switch back to pre-pandemic levels any time soon.
But Barclay said he wanted to see civil servants making “the maximum use of our office space” from next week. The minister will raise the issue with other members of the cabinet at the weekly meeting on Tuesday. “We need to move away from a reliance on video meetings and get back to the benefits of face-to-face, collaborative working,” he said.
Barclay paid tribute to civil servants for playing a leading role in helping the country deal with the pandemic but insisted it was “vital” more staff returned to the office.
But Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union which represents senior officials, said the comments represented a “phoney war” by the administration given how many workers have been able to fulfil their responsibilities from their homes during the two years of the pandemic.
The government estate has been cut in recent years to allow “hot desking” with far fewer office desks than there are civil servants, he pointed out.
Penman also cast doubt on the idea that the private sector would follow the example set by Barclay’s edict. “No private sector organisation is going to change their working arrangements on the basis of a cabinet minister telling civil servants to go back into the office,” he argued. “That’s the reality. They are just Luddites.”
An FDA survey of members found that 90 per cent wanted to continue to work from home on some days to maintain a work-life balance, with many still wanting to come into the office on other days.
The PCS union has also warned against a “reckless, headlong rush” to increase numbers in government workplaces, calling instead for a more careful approach.
The Cabinet Office said measures had been put in place in government buildings to reassure staff, including improved ventilation and better cleaning routines.