Is the government right to demand civil servants return to the office?

Jacob Rees-Mogg

Jacob Rees-Mogg led calls for public servants to stop working from home and return to offices. - Credit: PA

Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has demanded that civil servants should return to their offices full-time after two years of working from home, or flexible working, during the Covid pandemic.

However that is not something that will go down well with many public servants - and I've heard from some in Suffolk who are outraged by the suggestion that those who are working from home are not really working.

There are many advantages to be gained from working together in a designated workspace.

It gives staff the chance to really feel that they are working together as a team - instilling a real sense of camaraderie - and for those who may live alone brings really valuable social interaction.

Working in an office is particularly valuable for younger staff and recent joiners - they can get to know their colleagues and also find out how their older colleagues tackle the challenges they face.

But for many there remain advantages to working from home - which is why many employers, in both the public and private sectors, are increasingly adopting flexible policies.

I spoke to one senior council officer who was outraged at the suggestion that those who were home-based were not actually working.

She said: "Over the last two-and-a-bit years I've worked harder than I ever have done before. I don't have to waste time travelling to the office, my computer goes on first thing in the morning and often it's still on into the evening.

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"I get really angry at the suggestion that people working from home are not doing as good a job as those who are going into the office."

Another council officer told me he had worked very hard from home during the pandemic - and now he worked flexibly, he found he really looked forward to his days in the office because the work there was less intense.

All Suffolk councils say they are happy to embrace a hybrid or agile working model with staff - exact patterns can vary from person to person.

Some people do want to go into the office every day. They want to split their life clearly so when they're home they're able to simply relax and they can confine work to the office.

For some - particularly those with young children or who have other reasons like vulnerability to infection - it is much better to work from home full-time.

Many employers have recognised this and have adjusted their working patterns - Babergh and Mid Suffolk councils have reduced the amount of office space they rent from Suffolk County Council at Endeavour House in Ipswich.

I haven't heard any suggestion from anyone that people working from home aren't pulling their weight or that their operations are less efficient because not everyone is sitting in the same office. . . except for Mr Rees-Mogg and his colleagues.

And it's not just the public sector - many private sector companies also continue to allow flexible working. And if that wasn't an efficient way of working they'd soon abandon it because it would hit their profits.

Which makes me wonder why Mr Rees-Mogg, aided and abetted by Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay and Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, is so keen on stirring a pot that frankly no one else feels it is necessary to disturb.

If I were a real cynic I might suggest it is a deliberate tactic to shift people's anger about the position they find themselves in away from the government to some other group.

We've also seen the PM trying to deflect blame to the BBC (the organisation described as "The World's Best Broadcaster" in the executive summary of his Levelling Up White Paper) and the Church of England. 

By suggesting that public servants are a bunch of shirkers seeking an easy life while operating their work computers from their kitchen table wearing slippers and a dressing gown might be seen as just another attempt to deflect criticism.

But I'm sure right-thinking people won't really see it that way at all - after all what on earth has the government and its ministers done in the last couple of years to attract that kind of criticism in the first place?