Overcoming resistance to remote working in the Civil Service

Thousands of civil servants are destined for remote working if the chancellor of the exchequer’s intended cuts to public sector jobs are to be fulfilled. But the idea of packing workers off to set up at home is proving less than popular with government mandarins.

A poll of 85 public sector bodies – including 54 central government organisations – by London consultancy Governetz and home offices firm Henley Offices, has found that the take-up of home working varies widely, with some reporting as much as 13% and others just 1%.

This is despite the fact that encouraging more flexible and home working and making better use of conferencing technology are being seen by government as essential parts of the cost-cutting agenda.

It’s not because of a lack of demand, it appears. Some organisations reported being unable to cope with the sheer numbers of employees who wanted to take up remote working options.

While flexible working arrangements were normally formally defined, the majority of employees worked “only occasionally” from home. Another issue was a lack of central co-ordination of flexible working projects.

The Governetz findings echo a survey by the Office of Central Government published in February 2004 that found the adoption of flexible working practices in central government since 2000 had been much slower than anticipated.

The main barriers to change were managers and employees fearing a loss of control, particularly of the work environment, and bosses not knowing how to manage workers based at home, it concluded.

The infrastructure for the various different forms of flexible and home working is, by and large, in place, argued Governetz chief executive David Werran.

The difficulty is a management and HR one – shifting entrenched perceptions, fear of the unknown, managing and implementing change and educating managers and staff so that all sides can buy into the process.

“The 39 departments that make up Whitehall are slow and cumbersome, sometimes the smaller agencies will move much more quickly. In theory it is all there. Now it is up to the enthusiasm of the individual managers,” Werran said.

“A lot of people find it very hard to work from home, they feel they are losing out by being at home. So you need a reasonably senior manager to deal with it.”

Civil service unions are all behind flexible working as a concept, but also express concern that sometimes the process is not being as well managed or implemented as it could be.

“Where there is reluctance it is perhaps because it is not being sold to the staff in the right way,” said Alex Flynn of the Public and Commercial Services Union.

It is vital, therefore, that organisations provide the right support, whether financial – such as paying for a phone line, IT connections, extra insurance and so on – or managerial, so as to ensure workers do not feel isolated or left off the career ladder, he added.

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