Push for civil servants to return to office backfires as DfE runs out of desks

Downing Street’s demands that civil servants get back to the office has backfired for the Department for Education, where desk shortages have resulted in staff being sent home and others forced to work in “chaotic” conditions.

Officials working in cramped corridors or sharing desks have led to protests from civil service unions to Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, who last month ordered an end to homeworking after pressure from the efficiency minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg.

The extent of the chaos was revealed by Schools Week which reported that Susan Acland-Hood, the DfE’s permanent secretary, had ordered staff to spend 80% of their time in the office – despite the DfE having twice as many staff as desks.

Civil servants said the first week of the new policy was “chaotic”, with staff milling around trying to find space to sit and canteen tables being taken up. One described the DfE’s Great Smith Street office as like “a tube station in rush hour” after the new policy was implemented.

One said they had attended a meeting on a landing, describing the atmosphere as “less like the West Wing, and more like The Thick of It”.

According to Schools Week, the DfE has 4,200 desks for 8,000 full-time staff in its 12 offices across England, including just 95 desks for nearly 300 staff in Bristol, and 24 desks for 110 staff in Leeds. It reported that some staff at the DfE’s office in Sheffield had been sent home because of overcrowding, as nearly 1,500 staff tried to use the 790 desks.

As with many government departments, working from home was widely practised at the DfE before the pandemic. About 60-70% of DfE staff typically worked from home or had flexible working patterns on a daily basis, and in recent years the DfE’s office space has shrunk to reflect that.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the union, said the new policy would affect recruitment and staff retention. “Our members have worked flexibly for many years and deserve to be treated with respect, not like naughty schoolchildren,” said Serwotka, who has written to Zahawi on behalf of his members.

“To try to shame them back into the office when they have been working hard and successfully at home throughout the pandemic is bad enough. But when there aren’t enough desks – when it’s not physically possible – looks like the action of a bully.”

The First Division Association, which represents senior civil servants, said it had been “inundated” with complaints from its members. “We are also aware of members whose pre-pandemic flexible working arrangements are now deemed unacceptable, which is impacting working parents and those with caring responsibilities,” the FDA’s Helen Kenny told Schools Week.

Zahawi’s decision to push staff back into the office followed the DfE coming bottom of a league table of in-person attendance, compiled by Rees-Mogg. Last month, it was reported that Rees-Mogg had been leaving notes on empty desks in Whitehall, as part of an effort to shame civil servants back into the office.

Stephen Morgan, shadow schools ministers, said: “Instead of acting as glorified hall monitors, ministers should be spending their time tackling the day-to-day challenges children and teachers are facing.”

A government spokesperson said: “Ministers have been clear that departments should make maximum use of office space and progress is being monitored.”

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