A decrease in the number of tax office employees working on-site has been observed compared to the lockdown period, coinciding with a significant drop in customer service quality deemed “unacceptable”.
Recent findings by The Telegraph indicate that approximately 95 percent of HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) staff are now working remotely for at least one day per week.
This figure surpasses the levels seen during the initial national pandemic lockdown, when around 92 percent of HMRC employees shifted to remote work.
This information was obtained through a Freedom of Information request and highlights a shift from the previous trend, which saw only about one-third of staff working remotely in 2019.
These statistics translate to merely 3,000 out of the total 64,000 HMRC workforce working full-time in an office over a standard five-day week.
A decline in the quality of customer service
The context for this development is an ongoing decline in the quality of customer service provided by HMRC. The tax agency’s performance has been criticised as “unacceptable”, prompting the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee to demand improvements within a three-month timeframe. Unfortunately, recent performance data shows that average call waiting times have increased to 22 minutes from the previous year’s 16-minute wait time. This marks a significant deviation from the five-minute average wait time experienced during the 2020-21 period.
The challenges continue, as HMRC failed to meet any of its performance targets in the previous year, as indicated in the July financial reports. Moreover, the tax office faced backlash in June after announcing the temporary closure of a key customer phone line for the summer months. Adding to these concerns, a backlog of more than 37,000 pieces of correspondence, each at least 10 months old, has been left unanswered. This backlog led to the establishment of a specialised task force to address the issue.
How can they curb the remote work trend?
Harriett Baldwin, chair of the Treasury Committee, emphasised the importance of prioritising taxpayers’ needs amidst the increased remote work trend at HMRC. She expressed intentions to investigate the potential effects of remote work on taxpayers and urged for proper scrutiny before any shifts in service provision take place.
The tax agency introduced its flexible working policy in the summer of 2021, allowing employees to work remotely for at least two days per week. Despite this move towards greater flexibility, concerns have been raised about the declining quality of customer service. Chris Etherington of RSM, an accounting firm, stated that while flexible working might benefit staff, it appears to be negatively impacting taxpayers. He argued that HMRC’s transition to digital operations has not yielded the desired outcomes.
Although HMRC has multiple offices distributed across the nation, the proportion of employees working at the Westminster headquarters is also experiencing a decline. Official data shows that around 39 percent of HMRC staff worked at this location during the week commencing July 31, down from 46 percent three weeks prior.
Is remote working productive for civil servants?
These developments follow broader concerns about the impact of remote work on civil servants’ efficiency. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt warned of a potential creativity crisis if a return to office-based work does not occur as the default. He highlighted the benefits of in-person interactions for team cohesion and creativity.
While remote work became a necessity during the pandemic, there is growing apprehension about its long-term effects on productivity. Even companies like Zoom, synonymous with remote work due to its video calling capabilities, have mandated a return to the office for at least two days per week for their staff. This decision aligns with a trend among various corporations, including Amazon, Apple, BlackRock, and Goldman Sachs, which have all urged employees to increase their in-office presence this year.
Responding to these concerns, a spokesperson for HMRC refuted any correlation between remote work and the decline in customer service performance. The agency maintained that all staff are held to the same standards, whether they work from an office or remotely. The spokesperson encouraged the use of highly-rated online services and highlighted the availability of expert advisors for individuals requiring one-on-one support, particularly those with complex queries, digital exclusion, or increased vulnerability.
Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.