Written by John Nicklin, Managing Director of Juggl Desks

Cabinet Office minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has written to all secretaries of state, saying they must send a ‘clear message’ to civil servants to bring about a ‘rapid return’ to face-to-face work, but can this practically happen? Are offices set-up to accommodate the return of its entire workforce and what are the implications of forcing an office return?

Jacob Rees-Mogg has stated in a letter released on 19 April 2022 that it’s unacceptable that so many civil servants are still working from home, and it’s important to accelerate the return of civil servants to office buildings to realise the benefits of face-to-face, collaborative working and the wider benefits for the economy. With this letter also supported by prime minister Boris Johnson, it appears that the days are numbered for civil servants who are enjoying home working, but can all departments actually accommodate a full return to office working?

A spokesperson from the civil service acknowledged there was not enough desk space for all civil servants to be in the office permanently. It turns out that despite Rees-Moggs’ demands, many departments can’t logistically accommodate a full return to office life. Therefore, if all civil servants were to return to their offices tomorrow, there simply wouldn’t be enough desks and chaos would ensue! So what’s the solution?

Rees-Moggs’ solution would probably be to buy enough desks for everyone. Easy! Or perhaps not. Over the past two years, fewer people in the office has resulted in new office set-ups. Office layouts have changed to accommodate flexible working, with a combination of hot desk areas and spaces for collaboration and innovation. And if this set-up is improving productivity and the employee experience, then few departments will want to resort back to offices with rows and rows of allocated desks.

And let’s not forget that the pandemic has fundamentally altered working life, with both workers and employers enjoying the new found benefits of hybrid working in which time is split between the office and home. The CIPD highlights that new flexible forms of working have altered employee expectations and desires, and organisations that don’t support flexible working are at risk of increased employee turnover, reduced employee engagement and limitations on the ability to attract talent in the future. Hybrid working also provides opportunities to reduce estate and facilities costs (likely welcomed by Rees-Mogg), while supporting employee wellbeing, inclusion and equality.

Forcing a full-time return to the office is simply not in line with post-pandemic expectations and taking this approach will alienate civil servants and likely result in them leaving in droves.

The only sensible solution is to maintain some form of hybrid working arrangement so that civil servants don’t lose the flexibility many have come to love. It may be the case, however, that civil servants will need to be in the office more often to appease Government demands. And this will mean ensuring the office can accommodate increased capacity. Desk booking technology that allows the quick and easy reservation of hot desks, facilities and even car parking spaces will be key here to avoid disputes and overcrowding. Reviewing the office layout may also be necessary to maximise hot desk space without losing the much-needed communal and collaboration spaces.

The bottom line is that Rees-Mogg appears out of step with the post-pandemic world by pushing for a return to pre-pandemic levels of office occupancy. The transition to hybrid working can’t be ignored, but until this is realised by Government, departments must quickly prepare for a sudden surge in office attendance and not enough desks!