Civil service resisting flexible working trends

Apr 18 2005 by Nic Paton Print This Article

The civil service is proving resistant to allowing staff to work from home, despite it being a key part of the Government's ambitious cost-saving drive for central government.

Research from a public sector consultancy, published in yesterday's Mail on Sunday newspaper, has suggested that take-up of home working is slow, with some organisations reporting that just one per cent of staff have been given permission to "tele-work".

This is despite the fact that remote working is popular with employees because it cuts commuting times and potentially improves the balance between their home and work life.

Some organisations reported simply being unable to meet high demand from employees to work from home.

The civil service is currently in the throes of a massive relocation programme. In his Budget last month, Chancellor Gordon Brown announced that 12,500 jobs had already been moved out of London, out of some 104,000.

Alongside physically putting people in new offices, the service is trying to save money by encouraging more flexible ways of working, such as hot-desking, job-sharing, flexi-time and working from home, either some or all of the time.

But according to the poll of 85 public sector bodies Ė including 54 central Government organisations - by London consultancy Governetz, when it comes to home working its success rate varies widely. Some organisations report take-up of as much as 13 per cent and others just one per cent.

One difficulty, argues Governetz chief executive David Werran [crct], is the sheer size and bureaucracy of central Government, with a lack of central co-ordination around the issue.

"The enthusiasm is there in a lot of the smaller organisations but when you are dealing with bigger departments there is a challenge," he said.

The Governetz findings echo a survey by the Office of Central Government in February last year that found the adoption of flexible working practices since 2000 had been much slower than anticipated.

One of the main barriers to change was bosses not knowing how to manage workers based at home, it concluded.

In a rapidly changing service, the office environment is one of the few areas many civil service managers feel they still control, suggests Alia Mallick [crct], events director of public sector communications firm Govnet, which held a conference on this issue last weekend.

"There is a fear factor, a feeling that, by allowing employees to work from home, you are losing control of them," she said.

Managers are often locked into thinking that they need your presence 9-5 in the workplace

Getting it right involves a lot of planning as well as a change of culture, agreed Caroline Oldham, a team manager and remote worker with schools' inspectorate Ofsted.

All 1,200 of its inspectors are home based. Oldham, 48, has worked from her home outside Lincoln since 1992.

"You do have to look at it very differently. Managers are often locked into thinking that they need your presence 9-5 in the workplace," she told the Mail on Sunday.

"But working from home is not like that, you have to be judged on what you produce, your results," she added.

Being left off the career ladder is a common fear for home-workers, argued Nick Hopewell-Smith, marketing director of London-based Henley Offices, which specialises in building "home offices" and co-authored the Governetz research.

It is therefore vital organisations going down this route provide not only technical and financial assistance, but also extensive managerial support and recognition, he added.

Isolation can be another huge issue, argued Oldham. This was particularly the case for Ofsted's nursery inspectors who normally work alone.

"We have monthly team meetings and encourage people to stay in touch by phone or text message. We try to make them very social, and will often have a breakfast beforehand," she explained.

"Some managers find it a good idea to send an email around once a week with all the gossip. You also need to remember things like when it is someone's birthday," she said.

Ofsted is doing its best to pass on its experiences to other civil service bodies, and now runs a forum linking 20 organisations, adds director of corporate services Robert Green.