OPINION - The Standard View: Civil servants should lead by example and get back to the office

(Yui Mok/PA) (PA Wire)
(Yui Mok/PA) (PA Wire)

It has been almost one year since the World Health Organisation declared the end of Covid-19 as a public health emergency, and nearly two since the last pandemic restrictions in Britain were lifted. Yet saunter around Whitehall and you might be forgiven for thinking it is still late March 2020.

Writing in today’s Evening Standard, John Glen, minister for the Cabinet Office, said that some civil servants still “only come in on the odd day”. Even that may be putting it in characteristically diplomatic Whitehall language.

Data for the week of March 25 found that occupancy rates at HM Revenue and Customs was 53 per cent. The same department that last month threatened to shut its self-assessment helpline for half the year, until the Chancellor personally intervened.

Hybrid working and other flexible practices are a part of the modern workforce. The private sector knows all too well the need to attract and retain high-calibre staff, which requires more than simply an attractive base salary. Yet the private sector is also leading the way in the return to the office, predicated on the proven idea that working alongside colleagues, not squinting at them on a screen, is the best way to be more productive, creative and help develop careers.

That working from home was always more productive than from the office now feels a very 2021 notion. “Collaboration” isn’t a word that high-paid consultants use when they can’t quite identify something. It is both real and harder to come by when working from home.

In the office, workers — especially more junior ones — can turn to more experienced colleagues for guidance. At home, that requires a Slack message, an email or phone call, which for reasons of inertia or awkwardness often never happens.


Home working also contributes to the isolation many people feel — team drinks over Zoom are not the same as a get-together at the local or even a quick chat by the coffee machine. It engenders a more healthy work-life balance, allowing people to switch off from the demands of the working day.

Working from the office is also critical for our towns and cities, not least the capital. Londoners cannot complain that their favourite cafe is closing or the pubs are shutting early if they do not give them the custom needed to survive. Nor can they expect a world-class transport network if the passengers aren’t there tojustify the investment.

Ministers are allowing civil servants to set a terrible precedent. They should stand by their word and get staff into bustling offices, better able to address the pressing needs of the nation.