Exclusive: vast majority of public servants still working remotely, GGF survey finds

By on 13/03/2022 | Updated on 13/03/2022
While the majority of public servants worldwide currently work from home at least part of the time, many governments are calling for officials to return to offices as coronavirus restrictions lift

More than three quarters (78%) of public servants around the world are working remotely at least part of the time, as the COVID-19 pandemic prompts long-term changes to the future of work, according to an exclusive survey by Global Government Forum.

The survey, which ran between 26 January and 19 February, gathered nearly 4,000 responses from civil and public servants in 10 countries. It found that 48% of those surveyed work remotely full time while a further 30% work a mixture of remotely and on-site. Only 22% of respondents work solely on-site.

Canada had by far the highest percentage of government employees working away from the office at 70%, while 19% have a hybrid working arrangement. However, these figures may soon change after the Canadian government issued guidance earlier this month on bringing thousands of public servants back to offices.

Mona Fortier, the Canadian Treasury Board’s president, said departments would reintroduce staff to offices in incremental phases to ensure compliance with provinces’ individual plans to lift COVID restrictions and to give employees time to reorganise their work lives around childcare and other commitments.

“It is my expectation that organisations will continue to be agile and demonstrate flexibility as necessary in their planning to align to the evolving public health context,” she said in a statement.

US government upping in-person public services

The survey found that the US government had the second highest number of fully remote working staff at 47%, with a further 25% splitting their time between telework and working on-site.

Earlier this month US president Joe Biden set out his administration’s plan for federal employees to return to workplaces as part of an effort to widen the number of in-person public services available through agencies.

“Federal agencies will lead by example, increasing the hours public-facing offices are open for in-person appointments and in-person interactions in the month of April,” the White House said.

Of the 10 countries surveyed – Canada, the US, UK, New Zealand, Italy, Mexico, Australia, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and Colombia – Italy had the smallest proportion of public servants working remotely full time, at 1%, and the second lowest proportion working a hybrid model. However, the country had a much higher percentage of respondents working in frontline roles, including health and social care and education, than the other countries surveyed, which may explain this result.

The Dominican Republic had the second smallest percentage of remote working public sector employees (2%) and the highest number of staff working solely on-site (86%).

When it comes to the number of staff working a hybrid arrangement, New Zealand tops the list, at 64%.

In the UK, 31% of respondents work remotely full time, 21% work fully on-site, and 48% a mixture of the two. Ministers have criticised civil servants for ongoing remote working, despite many departments having been working towards flexible working arrangements since long before the pandemic.

Read more: UK government accused of ‘civil service bashing’ in remote working row

In a statement in January, Steve Barclay, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the UK Cabinet Office, who has responsibility for cross-government reform and efficiency, said the civil service should “move away from a reliance on video meetings and get back to the benefits of face-to-face, collaborative working”.

There was a “clear ministerial expectation” that civil servants would return to pre-COVID office arrangements at the earliest opportunity, he said.

Around the same time, the UK civil service’s chief operating officer Alex Chisholm wrote to leaders across Whitehall asking them to support a significant and swift return of staff to the workplace.

Australia to ‘retain diversity of talent’

The results of the survey show that the Australian Public Service has the third highest number of employees working remotely full time, at 40%, while 45% work both in workplaces and at home.

This too is likely to change soon. Stephanie Foster, deputy secretary governance in Australia’s Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet told Global Government Forum in January that the public service’s focus was to bring officials back to offices where it is safe to do so.

“Returning to face-to-face working in offices around the country is an important part of Australia’s return to normal and is the expectation for all of Australia’s public servants. We aim to retain some of those flexible working practices in a sustainable way – attracting and retaining a diversity of talent, while maintaining the elements that keep our workforce productive, support wellbeing and nurture a sense of connection,” she said.

The Global Government Forum survey also covered perceptions of COVID-19 vaccine mandates for public sector employees – look out for the analysis in the coming weeks.

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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