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DfE leadership face staff anger over call to return to office four days a week

Credit: Sebastiandoe5/CC BY SA 4.0

Civil servants at the Department for Education have described being demoralized and “let down” by instructions to spend four days a week in the office, and by what they see as a failure by top officials to defend them from political attack.

As exclusively revealed by PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service Worldofficials used an all-staff Teams meeting held last week to implore the department’s leaders to rethink guidance put out shortly beforehand saying 80:20 hybrid working arrangements should be the norm.

The guidance says there is “flexibility” for staff to request a 60:40 split instead, subject to their line manager’s approval, and for the right to work less time in the office in exceptional circumstances.

DfE permanent secretary Susan Acland-Hood acknowledged staff may find it “hard to believe” that the drive to increase their office-working hours is to increase productivity and collaboration, and not in response to political pressure.

The strength of feeling on the work-from-home row was reflected in the number of civil servants who upvoted questions submitted to the Teams call demanding an explanation for the change.

More than 1,100 people upvoted a submission asking why DfE was demanding its staff spend more time in the office than other departments, including the Cabinet Office.


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“DfE has put in place a detrimental policy that is not being imposed across Whitehall,” it read. “Has the senior leadership in DfE acted hastily and in poor judgment by forcing colleagues to return to the office and not defending them from unfounded attacks from media and ministers?”

Acland-Hood responded by saying that every ministry was “now starting to push quite a lot harder” for staff to return to the office some of the time “and to make it feel quite a lot less optional”.

She acknowledged that “we’re asking a little bit more than many departments”, although she expected it to be “common” for people to opt to reduce their time in the office to 60%.

“There’s a lot of departments who are asking for two to three [days in the office]; quite a lot of them are shifting the emphasis to three, away from ‘anything up to two is absolutely fine for everybody’,” she said.

Questions submitted to the call, seen by CSWshowed staff were anxious that further changes to working conditions could be coming.

One, upvoted more than 500 times, asked: “The department has changed its flexible-working policy following media criticism and political pressure. What assurances are there that other areas of flexible working (eg flexi time) won’t be changed if there is media scrutiny?”

Several questions related to public criticism of civil servants who work from home, with officials saying they were disappointed that departmental leadership had not publicly rebutted attacks by ministers and in the media.

One submission asking what DfE was doing to rebuild trust, which attracted more than 1,200 upvotes, read: “The morale of my team (and I’m sure many others) is at an all-time low following unfair criticism of civil servants and the DfE response.”

Acland-Hood noted that education secretary Nadhim Zahawi had “at no point said that he didn’t think people were trying hard or doing a good job or doing their best”.

“He does not subscribe to the view that somehow working from home is equivalent to laziness, but he does genuinely believe that there are benefits from coming together and collaborating,” Acland-Hood said.

Civil Service World’s full exclusive report can be read here.

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