For civil servants, getting through party conference season is all part of the job. Ministers are away from London, strutting their political stuff, while back in Whitehall the politically impartial machinery of government has to keep ticking over.
Sometimes, officials will brace themselves for a big announcement, knowing they have to translate the speech applause lines into actual policy. But this year at the Tory gathering in Manchester, the Civil Service was the butt of the joke, with repeated jibes that its metropolitan staff prefer lounging at home to coming into the office.
Former minister Jake Berry set the tone with this barb: “We have to end the Civil Service “woke-ing” from home. Sorry, I mean working from home, but let’s be honest, it often is woke-ing.”
The following day, Tory party chairman and former culture secretary Oliver Dowden piled in. Dowden complained that there were more occupied desks in Conservative campaigns HQ than in his old department. The public wanted the Government to “lead by example” and get more civil servants “back to work”, he said.
Dowden then went much further, as he referred to reported remarks by his former senior civil servant Sarah Healey that she used her Peloton home exercise bike “whenever I have a teeny bit of time”.
Healey had told a tech conference that “the lack of travelling time eating into my day” had led to an improvement in her well-being and ability to see her children more.
But Dowden told a fringe meeting: “People need to get off their Pelotons and get back to their desks.” Amid the guffaws from the audience, it felt like a surreal remake of Norman Tebbit’s 80s advice to the workshy to “get on your bike”.
As if we hadn’t got the message, Boris Johnson used his own conference speech to declare “we will and must see people back in the office”, not least to help young people learn new skills. Face-to-face meetings and “water-cooler gossip” were key spurs to a productive workforce, he added.
Of course, given that the PM is himself currently “out of office” in the Costa del Sol, for many there’s a bitter irony to his remark to one interviewer that “you need to be there” in person to fulfil your potential.
Johnson not only works from home in No 10, he regularly indulges in “remote working” when at Chequers, and we’re constantly told his breaks away from London aren’t holidays at all because he’s so plugged into his day job.
But while the Tory party was enjoying its digs at Whitehall bureaucrats, I understand permanent secretaries let rip at Cabinet Secretary Simon Case their fury at Dowden’s personal attack on their colleague Healey.
Not only had her remarks been taken out of context (she was in fact talking about the time freed up from commuting, not about working any less hard during the day), but more broadly departmental staff have shown no drop in productivity at all during the pandemic. A mix of working from home and office time had pointed to a more efficient future.
In fact, the backlash has been so strong that it now seems there is an embarrassing gap between Tory conference rhetoric and the daily reality of a modern civil service.
Only today, the PM’s spokesman conceded there were “no plans for any targets” or quotas for the numbers of staff expected in the office. Case appears to have learned from last summer, when he set an 80 per cent in-office target, only to see it crumble as the autumn Covid-19 wave became a tsunami.
There is a bigger problem though with ministerial insistence on a new form of office “presenteeism” and it’s this: in a bid to cut costs, their own Government has led the drive to slash the number of desks in Whitehall. In some departments, like the Cabinet Office, there are literally only three desks per 10 staff, so workers are expected to work remotely.
And there’s the whiff of political hypocrisy too. In line with the PM’s “levelling up” agenda, the Government’s Places for Growth strategy relocated civil service jobs out of London, and around 40 per cent of those jobs were expected to be home-based. New “hubs” in regional cities and towns embed the low desk ratios too, with lots of “hot-desking”.
Only last month, ministers announced the new HMRC office hub in Leeds would now accommodate six other departments. Why? Because HMRC, the biggest occupant, was doing more hybrid and homeworking than planned.
Dave Penman, boss of the First Division Association trade union, tells me ministers should be celebrating the flexible working revolution that saves the taxpayer money, helps staff manage childcare and revives areas outside London.
“Instead, they’re destroying their staff’s morale for cheap headlines that appear designed solely to play well with certain demographics in the electorate,” he says. He’s got a point.
Even Rishi Sunak, who has spoken of the benefits from in-person meetings for creative collaboration, last year talked about “interesting” new American models of serviced offices in local neighbourhoods that meant those who didn’t want long commutes could “hot-desk” closer to home.
Several UK councils are trying to turn empty department stores into just such local office space.
Crucially, homeworking and more localised working should mean an economic shot in the arm for all those towns that felt neglected and voted for Brexit. Instead of being seen as “dormitories” for their nearby big cities, workers can spend their day and their cash in the local economy.
Similarly, the Government has seen the chance to tackle the dire housing shortage by passing planning reforms to make it easier to convert empty retail stores into homes.
Away from more noisy rows over planning, on August 1 the Government quietly enacted a “High Street Homes permitted development right” to make the policy a reality. Home working raises the prospect that high streets will feature not just more homes, but more workers too.
For firms keen to make big savings by cutting office rental costs, and for workers who hate their commute, the pandemic simply accelerated an underlying trend. Labour has pushed its rights to flexible working this summer precisely because many working parents have seen at least some upsides to the Covid-19 restrictions.
There is one big danger in remote working, of course. And that’s the risk that if a company can have a remote worker in Barnstaple or Brighouse, it can have one in Bangalore or Bangkok. For now, however, some kind of hybrid mix of days in the office and at home currently hits that rare sweet spot of benefiting both bosses and staff.
That hybrid working also offers the chance to revive neglected towns is not lost on some Tory MPs. It’s certainly not lost on the Treasury, as evidenced by its big shifts of staff outside London. At some point, the Prime Minister may see it as the future too.