Minister calls for return to office-based working

26 January 2022

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Steve Barclay, has told departments across government that they should ensure that their offices can return quickly to full occupancy following the lifting of work from home restrictions in England.

The Civil Service will, he said, lead the way in a return to office working, with Ministers working with their Permanent Secretaries and departments to put in place measures to monitor office use and get people back to normal, pre-pandemic arrangements.

There will, Mr Barclay went on, be clear Ministerial expectations put in place.

“Now we are learning to live with Covid and have lifted Plan B measures,” he said, “we need to move away from a reliance on video meetings and get back to the benefits of face-to-face, collaborative working.”

This is particularly important for the learning and development of new members of staff, who have joined the Civil Service during the pandemic, Mr Barclay explained.

His call for government departments to enable a return to full capacity has been echoed by the Cabinet Office’s Permanent Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the Civil Service, Alex Chisholm, who has written to leaders across Whitehall asking them to support a significant and swift return of staff to the workplace.

To allow the transition back to office working, measures have been put in place in government buildings to reassure staff. These include increased ventilation and improved cleaning routines. Department leaders will also ensure all safety guidance is followed at all times.

It is expected that Civil Servants and other office workers returning to the office will bring economic benefits for businesses across the country, with sandwich shops and the hospitality sector due to see a dramatic increase in footfall.

Comment by Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula

Many employers will have already gone through the process (sometimes multiple times) of sending staff home then welcoming them back to the workplace.

Where employers have already completed such processes, it may be useful to assess what worked well and what didn’t previously. Reflective exercises can ensure effective measures are put in place this time round to make the return a success.

Employers should have supportive conversations with any employees who are hesitant about returning to the office.

Reasonable adjustments (such as temporary hybrid arrangements to phase return to full-time office working) can go a long way in ensuring employees feel comfortable and supported. Allowing flexibility at this stage can minimise absence levels, staff turnover and protect motivation, satisfaction and productivity rates later down the line.

Where employees unreasonably refuse to return to the workplace, employers may be able to treat this as a failure to follow reasonable management instructions, so manage it as a normal conduct issue. BUT, they should first adopt a supportive tone, to see what is causing the hesitancy and if there is a way the employee and employer can work together to reach a conclusion which is beneficial for all.