One of the country’s top civil servants has predicted that working from home will become a “permanent feature” for some staff working in Government departments.
The comments come despite recent efforts by the Prime Minister who, before the second wave of Covid-19 infections hit the UK, had led calls for staff to return to the workplace in response to concerns that cafes and other businesses which rely on demand from commuters were facing ruin.
Efforts to get 80% of civil servants back working at least part-time in Whitehall, initiated by ex-cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill before his departure earlier this month, now appear to have been abandoned.
Alex Chisholm, the Cabinet Office permanent secretary, told MPs that a “positive” impact of the coronavirus pandemic had been to pave the way for more “hybrid” online working between staff in the office and those based at home.
The shift towards more home-working, he told the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on Tuesday, would allow the Civil Service to reduce its central London office space as it looks to relocate jobs across the country.
Asked whether he thought there would be fewer staff working from Government offices in future, he said: “Yes, in short.
“There will be fewer officials working from Whitehall, partly because we want to reduce the number working in Whitehall and the size of the Whitehall estate anyway.
“But I think you’re absolutely right that the impact of the virus, one of the positive impacts, is it has shown the potential for this hybrid working, this mix of online and face-to-face, and that would I’m sure be a permanent feature.”
With civil servants covering a myriad of job roles, including the UK Border Agency and other non-office based contracts, Mr Chisholm said the Cabinet Office would “try not to set a general rule across the piste” but instead leave it to department heads to decide where to base their staff.
The senior mandarin said an announcement about the plan to reduce the Whitehall estate would come “in the weeks ahead”.
Mr Chisholm, a former chief executive of the Competition and Markets Authority, said the intention was to “consolidate and rationalise” the current Civil Service property portfolio into “substantial new” hubs, focused in cities.
The Civil Service also wants to “reduce London-centricity”, he added, in a bid to cut the number of people working in Whitehall with a view to recruiting and supporting jobs elsewhere in the UK.
During his landslide election win last year, Boris Johnson promised to “level-up” across the country by creating more opportunities outside of London.