Remote working: UK civil servants told to return to pre-COVID office arrangements

By on 25/01/2022 | Updated on 28/01/2022

UK government departments have been told to accelerate the return of officials to the office from this week after coronavirus regulations on working from home were removed.

In a statement released at the end of last week, senior UK government minister Steve Barclay said that the civil service must “lead the way” in a return to pre-pandemic working arrangements.

However, trade unions representing UK public servants said that demands for officials to return to office work ignored wider changes in the economy.

Barclay is the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the UK Cabinet Office, where he has responsibility for cross-government and public sector reform and efficiency, including civil service working guidance.

On Friday, he said the end of the working from home provisions in the UK meant the civil service should “move away from a reliance on video meetings and get back to the benefits of face-to-face, collaborative working”.

Many civil servants switched to working from home in the initial response to COVID-19 from March 2020 in line with government guidance. After the initial working from home guidance was lifted, a number of departments continued to allow staff to work remotely after finding it was popular, despite some ministers calling for more officials to come back to the office. Working from home advice was then reintroduced in December last year to tackle the wave of the omicron COVID-19 variant, but was removed last week.

See also: UK officials keen to retain remote working, survey finds

In his comments published on Friday, Barclay said: “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 from next week, as we build a strong recovery after the disruption of the pandemic.”

Barclay said that ministers would now work with permanent secretaries (the top officials in each department) to put in place measures to monitor office use and get people back to normal, pre-pandemic arrangements. There will be a “clear ministerial expectation” that offices would be at full capacity at the earliest opportunity.

Chisholm: significant and swift return to the workplace

Barclay’s comments have been underlined by the civil service’s chief operating officer Alex Chisholm, who has written to leaders across Whitehall asking them to support a significant and swift return of staff to the workplace.

According to the Cabinet Office, a return of civil servants to offices will bring economic benefits for businesses across the country, with sandwich shops and the hospitality sector due to see a dramatic increase in footfall.

However, the FDA trade union, which represents senior UK civil servants, highlighted wider changes in the world of work due to the pandemic, which had led to greater flexibility across a host of different sectors of the economy.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said that the call for officials to be back in the office “doesn’t make any sense”, adding: “Ministers have made it this kind of cultural war.”

He told Times Radio: “What I think they fail to recognise is it was government policy that people would sometimes work from home, even before the pandemic. 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”.

See also: Learn the lessons of COVID-19 remote working, says OPM as it publishes fresh guidance on telework

About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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