PCS has been vigorously challenging the department’s office closure plans; and has produced detailed guidance for members and local reps, aimed at ensuring that members are fully supported during what is an incredibly uncertain time; and we have built on this with our own experiences.
Our branch has seen three offices close in the last two months; the first in Northampton, followed by Bedford and Milton Keynes. In addition to that, our building in Oxford is scheduled to close within the next year.
The office closure itself is just the end of a lengthy and emotional process, that starts with the formal announcement that the office will close and when. It is then followed, in due course, by more details regarding where people might go and the timing for various stages in the process.
Members in our branch predominantly do enforcement and compliance work of various kinds and we have seen very little new employee recruitment in our offices for many years. Therefore the age profile of the branch is such that for all those members disappointed and angry that the offices are closing, there are some who see the closure as an opportunity to be released from HMRC.
The primary challenge to the branch in relation to the closures is best understood by looking at the four main groups that members fell into. These are:
- Members beyond reasonable daily travel (RDT) of any other location but who still want to stay and work in HMRC or another civil service department. These are the members who need the greatest support.
- Members either within or beyond RDT who are relatively happy to move because the new office is nearer to home or works better for them for some other reason.
- Members beyond RDT of another location, who welcome – for whatever reason (often because they are nearing retirement) – an early release package.
- Members within or beyond RDT who reluctantly see they have no choice but to transfer despite not wanting to.
So what lessons did we learn from our experience of going through closures? I think the main ones are:
- Every individual is different and, while there are only so many outcomes, neither we nor the employer must make assumptions.
- A transfer to a new office location is a contractual matter. HMRC must therefore follow its own guidance assiduously: conduct 1-2-1s; offer daily travel assistance where required; and issue appropriate letters regarding any transfers.
- Any managers who suggest they “will look after you” or “make sure you are alright” should be ignored. It may be well-intentioned but this is a set process with independent decision makers and an appeal mechanism. The outcome is a contractual change that applies to you and their influence may be negligible.
- Don't hold anything back in your own 1-2-1 meetings. You might be hesitant to tell your manager something about you or your life that you have never shared in work before but it could be critical to the outcome. It is no good wishing you had mentioned something after the decisions have been made.
- Honesty is crucial. Don’t offer anyone false hope or the prospect of an outcome you don’t know for sure can be delivered. This could be a life-changing decision and it has to be the individual that makes it based only on facts, not speculation.
- While there is a process to follow and HMRC may be matter-of-fact about it, we must remember this is about people; their hopes, fears and their feelings. All those involved may find it difficult at times for their own reasons so we must be considerate of each other.
Our members experienced a range of emotional reactions and the issues won’t have finished yet, as the additional travel may take its toll. Also every office our members have transferred to supposedly closes by 2021 so we all face the same process again in the next three or four years.
Where the PCS rep is going through the same experience, as I have been, then they can clearly empathise.
PCS really makes a difference throughout office closures by being there for members when they feel they need support, advice or strength; and fighting for them by providing representation when they feel vulnerable, anxious and unsure. It has been far from easy but we really are stronger together.