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Fewer Civil Servants Will Work From Whitehall Even When The Pandemic Is Over, Says The Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary

Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm

2 min read

Fewer civil servants will work from Whitehall even when the coronavirus crisis is over, the Cabinet Office permanent secretary has said.

Alex Chisholm said the pandemic, which has forced thousands of office staff to work from home, had shown a "hybrid model of working...with some people in the office and some people at home" is "very sustainable and very efficient".

He told the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) ongoing efforts to cut the size and cost of the government's Whitehall estate would mean people dialling into meetings from other locations would likely become a permanent fixture. 

It comes after Boris Johnson rowed back on his drive to get more people back to their workplaces amid rising numbers of infections across the country. 

"We were actually in a process of trying to get rather more staff to come into the office," Mr Chisholm, who started at the Cabinet Office in April, told MPs.

"Clearly we have had to stop those efforts, because the instruction from the prime minister which applies to all of us is to work from home if you can."

He said departments are currently only able to operate at between 20 and 40% capacity due to social distancing requirements, but that post-crisis more people would be able to work in smaller buildings, because staff will no longer all be in the office on the same day.

The senior official said the pandemic had had "quite a strong levelling effect" on staff working outside London, who no longer feel as much pressure to attend meetings in person.

"Even when you come in for face-to-face meetings in offices, there is always someone on-screen," he added.

"People used to feel they had to rush up and attend a meeting in Whitehall...we want to move away from that."

Earlier this month, a letter sent to civil service bosses from the government, seen by the BBC, "strongly encouraged" department heads to get their staff back to work.

Ministers wanted 80% of civil servants to be able to attend their usual workplace at least once a week by the end of September, claiming it would be "hugely beneficial".

But Mr Chisholm said latest data would likely show a decrease in the number of people going into the office, after a few weeks of increased attendance, following the change in advice. 

He added that plans to "reduce London centricity" and the number of people working in Whitehall had been accelerated and that there would be "some announcements in the weeks ahead".

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