How often since covid made its unwelcome appearance more than two years ago have you tried to transact a modest piece of business over the phone and been played an announcement along these lines: ‘You have been placed in a queue. We are sorry for the delay, which is due to covid restrictions, but please wait. Your business is important to us’? You then wait... and wait... and wait. If you are blessed with an unnatural degree of tolerance you may have been entirely sympathetic. But by now, with covid restrictions having been lifted, the sympathy of even the most saintly is perhaps wearing thin. Not least because of what we’ve come to think of as WFH or Working From Home. Are you one of those still enjoying the luxury of WFH or one of those who demand an end to it?
After blowing a bit hot and cold for so long, the government has decided the time has come for us all to set our alarms and brace ourselves once again for the daily commute. The so-called ‘efficiency’ minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has written to the permanent secretaries of every government department urging them to ‘issue a clear message’ and ‘ensure a rapid return to the office.’ He attached a list to his letter which showed that more than a quarter of all civil servants were continuing to work from home even in the most well-attended departments. He said ending WFH would bring the benefits of “face-to-face, collaborative working”.
Downing Street agrees. A spokesman for Boris Johnson said: ‘Clearly the prime minister feels that it is important that we make the best use of taxpayer-funded departments which are not returning, currently, to the levels we saw before the pandemic. This is not simply just about value-for-money for taxpayer-funded buildings, but also it’s about the staff – particularly junior staff who benefit from face-to-face working. Obviously, we know there are benefits that can deliver for the public as well.’
The call was rejected by the civil service trade unions. Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA which represents senior civil servants, said: ‘It’s ludicrous that civil servants are being counted with clickers. Ministers should be concentrating on what’s being delivered, not numbers at desks.’ He accused Rees-Mogg of behaving like a luddite while the private sector had embraced the benefits of flexible working.
The leader of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), Mark Serwotka, took the same line: ‘These comments from Jacob Rees-Mogg and his Conservative colleagues are a slap in the face to PCS members who worked tirelessly and who made immense sacrifices during the pandemic. For over two years, often under the government’s own instruction, many of our members have demonstrated that they can do their job from home. The suggestion that they’ve been ‘sitting at home’ is deeply insulting. The government rightly lauded our members when it mattered. Now they seek to denigrate and offend them...Ministers’ obsession with ending flexible working and micro-managing the civil service increasingly just looks vindictive.’
The fashionable jargon for the system the unions want to adopt is ‘hybrid working’. They argue that the traditional 40-hour week has had its day and, in simple terms, office workers would be more productive if they were allowed to spend more time at home and less time in the office. Maybe a 70/30 split? Maybe 50/50? It’s all up for grabs. At least that’s what the unions argue for. The Daily Mail is not alone in arguing for the opposite.
The Mail (and its Sunday sister) describes it as a ‘licence to skive’. It’s carried out an investigation which, it claims, shows that on a typical Monday morning in many public-sector offices, less than 10 per cent of staff were at their desks. At the Department for Education, three quarters of staff are at home on any given day. Even our spies are skiving, it seems. GCHQ jobs and roles in counter-terrorism at the Home Office are still being advertised as partial or total working-from-home opportunities.
Luke Johnson is a British entrepreneur who has chaired large businesses and charities. He shares the Mail’s concerns. He writes: ‘It's a travesty to pretend that people at home work as diligently as colleagues who turn up to the office. My own experience as a businessman over the past two years, liaising with people at the Home Office or the Vehicle Licensing Agency, is that working from home has made for a bureaucratic nightmare. And I know that tens of thousands of people in contact with other departments, perhaps in need of passports or other vital documents, would agree with me. Calls go unanswered, emails are not replied to and people take far longer to carry out the routine administrative tasks than they did before. And as you while away the time waiting for someone to get back to you, you can't help wondering how many staff are out walking the dog, taking a break on their Peloton or picking the children up from school when, previously, they would have been at their desks.’
Mr Johnson is hardly alone in his view that ‘hybrid working’ is potentially lethal for the economy. But there’s another view that says we are in the early stages of this workplace revolution and ultimately the benefits will outweigh the drawbacks. For a start, what about our old friend ‘the work/life balance’? Surely, they argue, a happier workforce is ultimately a more productive workforce. And anyway what’s so great about the rush hour commute that is the inevitable consequence of the traditional office regime?
How ‘productive’ is it to spend perhaps three hours a day, five days a week, crammed into an overcrowded tube or train or bus or (even worse) sitting in their cars in a traffic jam? And when they get to their offices what will they be doing for 90% of their time? They will be sitting in front of a computer not unlike the one that they have in their homes. And who exactly benefits from the massive high rise office blocks in our city centres apart from the developers who charge extortionate rents?
Those who defend the nine-to-five office culture say that without the office workers thronging the city centres the economy will suffer because so many small businesses will go bust. They usually single out sandwich shops and pubs and dry cleaners and gyms. But the sceptics say there is another side to that coin. They point out that people will still buy sandwiches and get their dry cleaning done and go to the gym but they will do all those things nearer to where they live: in the small towns and villages that desperately need the business that disappears when the commuters make their trek to the big city centre.
And then there are the environmental and health arguments. The curse of all big cities is pollution. We are still a very long way from the days when every vehicle will be powered by clean electricity. And until we get there many will suffer from having to breathe in the trillions of tiny particles pumped from the exhausts and break discs and tyres of cars and buses and taxis.
And what about the greatest of all threats to our planet: global warming? Everyone knows fossil fuels are the biggest contributor to the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Commuting is to blame for much of it. Skyscrapers are to blame for even more. Not just heating the offices in the winter and cooling them in the summer, but building them in the first place. The production of cement releases 6% of all carbon dioxide generated by human activities and accounts for about 4% of global warming.
So where do you stand in this debate? Are you one of those who thoroughly enjoyed the covid lockdowns and will fight for your ‘hybrid working’ rights to the bitter end. Or have you had more than enough of working from home and can’t wait to join the commuter crush again? And what about the wider implications of a new working regime. Do you think the economy is being harmed by the WFH enthusiasts? Or do you think we need to put the environmental impacts of commuting first and say farewell to the city and its skyscrapers?
Let us know.