12 September 2023
There have been a number of reports recently of employers introducing policies that require staff to be present in the office more. Perhaps the most notable of these relate to the working practices at Zoom and Google, given the technology they offer helps facilitate home-working and operating as virtual teams. Zoom has sought to justify its policy shift, stating the company is ‘most effective’ when staff that live within 50 miles of an office are onsite for at least two days a week.
HMRC teams will no doubt be alive to this point around effectiveness as well and considering how best to address this. The pressure they are under is clear and HMRC’s struggles with customer service performance levels have been well-documented. Its latest set of performance statistics highlight the continued struggle in reaching previous service levels. For example, taxpayers waited an average of 21 minutes to have their calls answered in July 2023, compared to a little over six minutes in July 2019. Similarly, the number of complaints received in the four month period to July 2019 was 22,373, and for the same four months to July 2023, the figure stands at 35,353.
These challenges have led to measures being taken such as closing the self-assessment helpline over the summer to try and provide some temporary capacity. There are a number of factors behind HMRC’s performance levels and it would be overly simplistic to conclude that getting staff into the office is all that is needed to resolve things. Such a move would not address the fact that HMRC has arguably been underfunded over a significant period and is suffering from resource constraints, as well as the loss of experienced employees.
As it stands, HMRC’s public stance appears to be that it is not convinced its effectiveness will improve with more time spent working together in the office. In a recent press article, an HMRC spokesperson stated that:
'There is no link between our customer service performance and working from home. All our staff are held to the same standards whether they are working from an HMRC building or from home.'
It is not clear that there have been or will be any formal changes to HMRC’s official hybrid working policy, which we understand was signed off by ministers in May 2020.
HMRC’s stated view may well be right but with performance levels lagging behind pre-pandemic levels, HMRC could come under more political pressure to review its policies and revert closer to its historic office working patterns as with other businesses. If such a change is to be made, it is useful to understand the historical position and the scale of the journey required.
Data from a freedom of information request obtained by RSM UK highlights the average number of HMRC staff working in a regional centre at least once a week and the percentage of staff this represents in each HMRC regional centre office during the year to 31 March 2023:
|Regional centre||Average number of people that worked at the regional centre at least once a week||Percentage of the regional centre workforce that worked this represents|
|Newcastle Upon Tyne**||5,700||75%|
* The Liverpool building was closed between July 2022 and May 2023 due to flood damage and business continuity plans were followed.
** Legacy office used in locations where regional centre is planned for future opening.
It’s important to note that the data obtained is, by its nature, historical and may not therefore reflect current working practices at HMRC. It can of course be influenced by individual choices of staff and many new starters at HMRC may value the benefit of in-person training as we are seeing with graduates and apprentices in the accountancy sector.
Even so, with around 30% to 40% of HMRC staff seemingly not attending the office just once a week in some regional centres during the last financial year, any formal change in home-working policy could have a big impact. Homeworking will no doubt be keenly valued by HMRC staff and if there are any changes, these need to be carefully managed to ensure it does not result in a raft of resignations at a time when resource is already constrained.