The government is pushing hard for civil servants to return to the office full-time. Former Conservative Party chair Oliver Dowden called for civil servants to ‘get off their Pelotons and back to their desks’ and government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has conducted headcounts around 100 Parliament Street, leaving passive aggressive notes on people’s desks. They do this in the name of improving productivity and government effectiveness. But is fully in-person working really the way to do it?
In fact, the evidence from leading management consultancies shows just the opposite: remote and hybrid (ie a mix of in-person and remote) working is more productive and better for attracting and retaining talent. It also offers a chance to level up by spreading civil service jobs around the country. Therefore, a government truly concerned about productivity and effectiveness and with a genuine commitment to levelling up would embrace hybrid work. And if this government will not, a future Labour government should.
Evidence from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and McKinsey shows that remote and hybrid working is more productive than fully in-person working for professionals. In a global study, BCG found 75 per cent of employees were as or more productive in individual tasks when working remotely. And even for collaborative tasks, over half maintained or improved their productivity. These results are echoed in UK-specific studies. And managers agree: McKinsey found 58 per cent of executives reported improvements in productivity. Workers save time commuting, splitting the gains between work (a direct productivity gain) and themselves (improving wellbeing and, indirectly, productivity). Other benefits include reduced absenteeism, more control/autonomy over work and less distraction. There are of course challenges in making the hybrid model work, for example ensuring junior staff have adequate learning opportunities. The government will need to adapt how to work, lead, and organise. But ministers committed to government effectiveness would embrace these challenges, not try to turn back the clock.
Attracting and Retaining Talent
Forcing civil servants to work fully in-person could lead to an exodus of top talent and make it difficult to hire new talent.
Workers are more willing to switch jobs and careers than in the past: the so-called ‘Great Attrition’ has seen a sustained mass exodus of workers from their jobs since early 2021, with 56 per cent of ‘knowledge workers’ now say they are open to looking for a new job in the coming year. And workers prefer hybrid and remote working: 76 per cent say they are looking for flexibility in when and where they work. Workers don’t like commuting (who does?) and prefer the control remote working gives. Indeed, employees now rank compensation and flexibility as the two most important workplace factors when choosing a job. So how can the civil service compete? The private sector already outcompetes them on pay. And while historically the civil service offered more flexible working arrangements, it is now falling behind the private sector where hybrid is here to stay. So if you’re a government programmer, economist or lawyer, why stay in the civil service when you could earn more in a private sector job that fits better with your family life and gives you the flexibility and comfort of working from home? And for parents and carers, remote working can be crucial for meeting care obligations. If the civil service wants to attract and retain talent in the modern workforce, it cannot abandon remote working.
Finally, increased hybrid and remote working offers a real opportunity to level up by hiring talent outside traditional locations. Already the government is trying with its Places for Growth scheme to encourage government departments to hire outside London to boost local economic growth. However, in-person working limits departments to hiring in or near places with government offices (and mostly in London). But remote working opens the possibility of hiring talent beyond London and the handful of other places with central government offices. Indeed, this effect already happened during the pandemic, with workers abandoning London while working remotely. Recalling those workers concentrates their money back into the major towns and cities. Embracing hybrid work by contrast means the civil service could recruit in places it never could before, benefiting local communities with civil servants’ spending power and benefiting government with new talent.
If the civil service wants to enhance productivity, attract and retain the best talent and level up, it needs to adopt the working practices of the future – and embrace remote work.