DfE monitors staff after edict to return to the office

WiFi is being used to track attendance

The Department for Education is now monitoring WiFi use to track attendance after ordering staff to return to in-person working at least four days a week.

Officials who do not physically attend an office for 30 days or more will be reported to their managers.

FE Week revealed in May how civil servants had been forced to work in corridors and canteens because the department has almost twice as many workers as desks.

The DfE confirmed this week it is tracking logins to its virtual private network (VPN) and local area network (LAN).

Headline data on attendance is shared with the Cabinet Office, where the mandate to return to the office originated. Individual data is passed to senior civil servants so they can have discussions with those not coming in.

Helen Kenny, a national officer at the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, said it was “very disappointing” the DfE “continues to waste time and energy tracking when staff are in the office, rather than accepting that the world of work has fundamentally changed”.

“FDA members have proven themselves to be just as, if not more, productive when working remotely, and government departments should move with the times. Work is what you do, not where you do it.”

Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, ordered staff to return to the office at least four days a week earlier this year. It followed a government-wide edict from efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, who visited departments and left notes for absent officials.

But the push backfired because the DfE, which encouraged flexible and hybrid working before the pandemic, has far more staff than desks.

Staff outnumber desks by almost two-to-one across the department’s 12 offices, figures seen by FE Week show. In Leeds, there are just 24 desks for 110 staff. Bristol has 95 desks for 299 people.

There was further criticism at the end of May when staff at the department’s overcrowded Sheffield office, which has nearly double the number of staff than desks, struggled to evacuate after a “suspect package” was discovered.

The order to leave resulted in queues in the stairwell and congestion on upper floors.

A DfE spokesperson said its approach “fits with the amount of desk space we have, gives us full and vibrant offices but also retains flexibility to work in different ways when needed.

“This is good for our business and staff – and good for the children and learners we serve every day.”

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