Downing Street’s demands for civil servants to return to office have had unpleasant results Department of Educationwhere a shortage of jobs has led to staff being sent home and others forced to work in “chaotic” conditions.
Officials working in cramped corridors or sharing tables sparked protests by public service unions Nadhim ZahaviSecretary of Education, who last month ordered a shutdown at home following pressure from Minister for Efficiency Jacob Reese-Mogo.
The degree of chaos was showed School Week in which it is reported that Susan Ecland-Hood, DfE’s permanent secretary, has ordered staff to spend 80% of their time in the office – despite the fact that DfE has twice as many staff as desktops.
Civil servants said the first week of the new policy was “chaotic” when staff were around trying to find a seat and canteens were occupied. One described the DfE office on Great Smith Street as a “subway station at rush hour” after the new policy was implemented.
One said they attended the landing meeting, describing the atmosphere as “less like the West Wing and more like The Thick of It.”
According to Schools Week, DfE has 4,200 desks for 8,000 full-time staff in its 12 offices across England, including a total of 95 desks for almost 300 staff in Bristol and 24 desks for 110 staff in Leeds. It reported that some DfE office staff in Sheffield were sent home due to overcrowding as nearly 1,500 employees tried to use 790 desks.
As in many government departments, work from home was widely practiced in the DfE prior to the pandemic. About 60% to 70% of DfE employees typically worked from home or had a flexible work schedule on a daily basis, and in recent years DfE’s office space has shrunk to reflect this.
Mark Servotka, the union’s secretary general, said the new policy would affect staff recruitment and retention.
“Our members have worked flexibly for many years and deserve to be treated with respect and not as naughty schoolchildren,” said Servotka, who wrote to Zahavi on behalf of his participants.
“Trying to embarrass them to return to the office if they worked hard and successfully at home throughout the pandemic is bad enough.
“But when there aren’t enough tables – if it’s physically impossible – it looks like a bully.”
The First Division, which represents senior government officials, said it was “overwhelmed” by complaints from its members.
“We also know about members whose flexible working conditions before the pandemic are now considered unacceptable, affecting working parents and those with care responsibilities,” said Helen Kenny of FDA Schools Week.
Zahavi’s decision to return staff to the office came after DfE found itself at the bottom of a personal attendance table compiled by Reese-Moham. Last month it turned out that Reese-Mogg was leaving notes on empty tables in Whitehall as part of an effort to disgrace government officials back to the office.
Stephen Morgan, Labor’s shadow school ministers, said: “Instead of acting as famous observers in the hall, ministers should spend their time tackling the day-to-day problems faced by children and teachers.”
DfE asked for comment.