Leeds Council staff may flock back to the office this winter as they 'battle heating vs transport costs'

Council staff in Leeds may flock back to the office this winter to keep their household energy bills down, a senior officer has predicted.

Much of Leeds City Council’s workforce is staying away from the office because of commuting costs, Neil Evans, the authority’s director for resources said.

But that situation may change when the colder weather kicks in, amid the spiralling cost of heating.

Mr Evans’ comments are likely to resonate with staff across workplaces in Leeds, many of whom have been working from home to one extent or another since the pandemic.

Elected councillors have queried whether or not the authority’s current hybrid working system has kept services running as smoothly as before

But elected councillors have queried whether or not the authority’s current hybrid working system, which offers most staff a mix of home and office working, has kept services running as smoothly as before.

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Speaking at a scrutiny meeting on Monday, Conservative councillor Billy Flynn (Adel and Wharfedale) said he wanted to see proof of how effective the new arrangement had been for the public.

In response, Mr Evans suggested the council had to be flexible as it tries to recruit and retain staff, and that home working in some form was likely to stay for good.

He said: “As you’re asking the question, ‘prove to me it’s as good’, I’ve got lots of staff saying, ‘Prove to me I need to come in’.

“I personally think there’s a need for regular contact because of the quality of relationships between people, development of new staff and good supervision. We all need these things to be done in-person because it’s quite difficult to do them remotely.

“But that challenge of showing those things are necessary is something staff are (asking for). People are now saying they’re struggling with finances and the cost of transport.

“We may see more people come back in September and some people may actually decide it’s cheaper to come in rather than heat their homes.”

Mr Evans said that in areas like the processing of council tax, the authority could tangibly see there’d no change in performance since hybrid working was introduced.

But other council services were harder to measure, he said.

The meeting was told staff surveys had found strong support for hybrid working and that many feel they’re as productive at home as in the office.

But Councillor Flynn said employees shouldn’t “dictate” policy, if services weren’t keeping up to pre-pandemic standards.

He said: “We’ve done survey after survey of our staff, but I’ve not seen one survey of the public of whether or not they think they’re getting as good a service as before.

“Obviously we’ve got to look after our staff, but this is a public service, not a private service."

Labour councillor Caroline Gruen (Bramley and Stanningley) also expressed caution about home working.

She said: “The social side of working sounds a contradiction in terms, but actually it’s not.

“I think the way people relate to each other in face-to-face meetings is different from the way they behave on screen.

“For me a risk is the staff and public wellbeing of moving to this model and I think we need to consider it carefully.

“I know some people became quite depressed during the lockdown period because of that lack of social contact.”