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The government would be wrong to force civil servants back to the office full-time

Plans to reform the civil service are premised on more flexible working

While there are good reasons for civil servants to spend less time working from home, Jordan Urban warns that plans to reform the civil service are premised on more flexible working

Whether civil servants work from home or in the office has become a point of contention. Some ministers have been critical of home working and, as Covid restrictions ease, have demanded more in-person attendance, with Conservative Party chair Oliver Dowden telling a party conference fringe event last October that “people need to get off their Pelotons and get back to their desks”. The Mail on Sunday recently splashed on the prime minister’s apparent wish to take on a “Whitehall Blob” vowing to “work from home forever”.

Physical co-location can help the effective running of an organisation and it is right to expect civil servants to return to spending more time in the office.[1,2] But the civil service has also taken advantage of the benefits of flexibility during the pandemic. For example, normalising virtual attendance to meetings has given officials outside London greater opportunity to meaningfully contribute to discussions.[3] And a January 2021 survey conducted by the union for more senior officials, the FDA, showed 97% of civil servants wanted to retain the option of working from home.[4] A happier workforce is a higher performing one and ministers and civil service leaders should not lightly dismiss the views of their colleagues.

So while a return to the office should be encouraged, a blanket approach pushing for civil servants to become mostly or entirely office based is wrong. It will undermine ministers’ own aims for civil service relocation, damage attempts to attract employees with experience outside government and specialist skills and is directly at odds with long-established plans to reduce the size of the government estate.

Hybrid working is important to making the relocation agenda work

In our report Moving Out, the Institute recommended that in general it would be most effective for relocated offices to be in big cities. Cities have large, skilled workforces and relocating roles to them will allow talented people who do not want to live or work in London to contribute more effectively to the civil service. Without an adequate supply of highly skilled workers, relocated offices are likely to fail.

The same logic underpins the consolidation of the government’s estate through what it calls the ‘hubs programme’. Smaller offices dotted around the country are being closed and roles relocated to bigger, more cost-efficient ones in cities. Placing these larger offices in areas without a suitable workforce to fill them would be a costly error.

However, locating civil servants in cities does not help the government achieve two other goals it has set for the relocation agenda – economically ‘levelling up’ deprived areas and shifting what it perceives as civil servants’ ‘metropolitan’ mindsets by encouraging them to experience life in non-metropolitan areas. This is where a more flexible approach to home working comes in.

Allowing civil servants more flexibility about when they come into the office substantially changes where they can live. Living outside the city where their office is based becomes more attractive – longer commutes are balanced out by having to do them less often, while civil servants’ pay packets will go further in the towns and villages around big cities than in the cities themselves. With their extra spending power, civil servants will inject more money into the types of local economies that the government has identified as needing ‘levelling up’. Furthermore, if living outside metropolitan areas can change civil servants’ mindsets – though our research is generally cautious about the benefits of this – then these towns and villages are the types of places that will do so.

Offering hybrid working is necessary to help recruit the type of civil servants the government says it wants

The Declaration on Government Reform, the government’s civil service reform plan, commits to encouraging entrants from outside government as well as those with specialist skills. But historically government has struggled to attract these types of candidates, who often have options for where they can work and tend to gravitate towards higher paying private and wider public sector jobs.

The civil service will always struggle to compete on salary with the private and wider public sector, and so needs to make itself attractive by matching or going beyond what other sectors can offer in other ways. More flexibility around hybrid working arrangements in the private sector looks set to continue for the long term.[5] Employees say they enjoy this flexibility.[6] So the civil service needs to match the offer of its competitors to even begin to compete for top talent. Reducing opportunities for hybrid working would undermine these attempts.

The consolidation of the government’s estate means a full return to the office is impossible

Between 2010 and 2019, the size of the government estate shrank by 30% as part of an effort to consolidate government property.[7] During this period, hybrid and home working was promoted as a tool that would help make the civil service more efficient.[8] Government hubs have been built on the assumption of a low desk to employee ratio, while the Government Property Agency’s 2020–2030 strategy argued that “the COVID-19 response confirmed that in most cases desk-based work can be done effectively at home”.[9,10]

Meanwhile, there are currently more civil servants than there were in 2010 when the coalition government first set out plans to substantially cut staff numbers. So any attempt to get civil servants back into the office has to reckon with the fact that a combination of the last decade of estate management and the growth of the civil service since the EU referendum means there are more civil servants than in 2010 but far less office space in which to put them.

Common sense is needed about when to come into the office

The government needs to find a balance. It is important that civil servants work in the office when doing so would be beneficial. Cabinet Office chief operating officer Alex Chisholm has noted that “the modern workplace…is much better set up for work than most people’s homes” and that “a certain type of learning from each other is easier done by direct observation and it is difficult to fully replicate that online.”[11] The ease of communication physical co-location allows for is also important when facing particularly fast-moving or important situations.

But forcing civil servants back into the office full-time will undermine the government’s stated aims for civil service reform and is logistically impossible. The experience of the pandemic also showed that there are some benefits to home working. Common sense is needed about when it is and is not important for officials to be in the office. The government should not rip up a decade of estate strategy and workforce planning for the sake of a few headlines.


  1. Campbell L, Four reasons why the office environment is still key to employees, EY, 19 July 2021, www.ey.com/en_uk/workforce/four-reasons-why-the-office-environment-is-still-key-to-employee
  2. Markman A, Why You May Actually Want to Go Back to the Office, Harvard Business Review, 1 July 2021, https://hbr.org/2021/07/why-you-may-actually-want-to-go-back-to-the-office
  3. Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Oral evidence: The work of the Cabinet Office, HC 118,  29 September 2020, https://committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/938/default
  4. FDA, Working Hours Survey: 97% want to continue working remotely, 14 January 2021, www.fda.org.uk/home/Newsandmedia/News/Working-Hours-Survey-97-want-to-continue-working-remotely.aspx
  5. McKinsey, What executives are saying about the future of hybrid work, 17 May 2021, www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/what-executives-are-saying-about-the-future-of-hybrid-work
  6. CIPD, Planning for hybrid working, 30 September 2021, www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/relations/flexible-working/planning-hybrid-working#gref
  7. Cabinet Office and Jeremy Quin MP, Reducing size of government estate secures more than £2bn, press release, 4 February 2020, www.gov.uk/government/news/reducing-size-of-government-estate-secures-more-than-2bn
  8. HM Government, The Civil Service Reform Plan, June 2012, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/305148/Civil-Service-Reform-Plan-final.pdf
  9. Waugh P, Ministers rail against working from home, but it’s key to their own ‘levelling-up’ agenda, inews, 11 October 2021, https://inews.co.uk/news/working-from-home-wfh-hybrid-ministers-government-levelling-up-agenda-1243876
  10. Government Property Agency, GPA Strategy: 2020–2030, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/988168/GPA_Strategy_2020-2030.pdf
  11. Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Oral evidence: The work of the Cabinet Office, HC 118,  29 September 2020, https://committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/938/default
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