Departments vary in officials’ enthusiasm to return to Whitehall headquarters

Credit: Mathew Browne/Pixabay

The number of civil servants working at the headquarters of most ministries rose sharply after Jacob Rees-Mogg, then minister for government efficiency, asked his colleagues to stop working from home in mid-April.

But Cabinet Office data shows these increases varied widely – and many departments subsequently saw falling occupancy levels over the summer.

In an April 13 letter, Rees-Mogg wrote to Secretaries of State urging them “to send a clear message to officials in your department to ensure a speedy return to office.” The letter included a department league table based on seat occupancy rates for the first week of April.

At the end of June, the Cabinet Office started publishing this data, which currently covers 30 weeks from Monday February 7 to Friday September 2 for 16 departments and three other departments with a shorter date range. It is based on the average daily number of employees present at the headquarters as a percentage of the building’s capacity.

Departments use a range of methods to count staff, including location-based computer connections – this week dubbed a “Big Brother-style development” by PCS union leader Mark Serwotka – as well as entry card data, office reservation systems and manual counts. .

The Cabinet Office cautions against comparisons between departments, given their different models and ways of operating. But outside of the overall levels, there are significant differences in how occupancy levels have changed over the past few months.

To reduce the noise of weekly variations, this analysis divides the 30 weeks into three periods. The first of 11 weeks covers February 7 to April 22. The second period begins with a week that has seen a surge in occupancy in many departments following Rees-Mogg’s letter, covering the 10 weeks from April 25 to July 1. The third nine-week period runs from July 4 to September 2.

Based on the first and second period averages, the Department of Education saw the greatest return to office, with its Sanctuary Buildings headquarters more than doubling its average occupancy levels from an early 26% February to mid-April at 60% for mid-April to early July then 55% at the beginning of September. In late April, then education secretary Nadhim Zahawi told a select committee he had told his staff to return to pre-Covid working patterns “immediately” and the data suggests that many paid attention to it.

The Department for Education says the technology already in place made it easier to track where people were working and helped them get back to the office.

“Last year we started rolling out a new VPN system that has made it easier to track where people are connecting from to help us understand office occupancy rates, but it was actually coincidence rather than directly related,” a spokesperson said. “We have effectively operated a hybrid model since the start of the pandemic. As key workers, many of our staff had to come into the office intermittently right from the start, so our technology was already in good shape. »

HM Revenue and Customs, the Department for Leveling Up and the Department of Justice all recorded occupancy increases of 20 percentage points or more between the first and second periods.

However, some departments saw little or no increase.

These include the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Defense and the Department for International Trade, although all three already have relatively high occupancy levels. Both the Foreign Office and Home Office increased occupancy by just three percentage points from lower levels.

Although not appearing in these averages, many departments recorded sharp drops in attendance over the week, including two rail strikes on June 21 and 23, with figures generally rebounding the following week. But the return to the office slowed down over the summer, with half of the departments seeing drops in average occupancy between the second and third periods.

The Cabinet Office has seen occupancy levels fall by nine percentage points.

“As you would expect, attendance at the workplace has been lower in the summer as staff take annual leave and with the impact of recent railway strikes, but that hasn’t stopped civil servants from deliver vital public services,” a spokesperson said, adding, “We have always been clear that we want to see office footfall across the public service steadily return to pre-pandemic levels, and ministers and officials at all levels are keeping the machinery of government functioning ahead of what we know will be a difficult few months.

This data shows that while many officials have returned to work at headquarters in recent months, many others continue to work remotely or in regional offices. Advertisements for some senior jobs now offer applicants a range of basic offices as well as remote or home-based work.

Despite his enthusiasm for working in Whitehall, the change was recognized by Rees-Mogg. In one of his last moves before becoming business secretary, he announced plans to sell government buildings worth £1.5billion, partly due to more remote working .