With their attack on WFH, Johnson and Rees-Mogg have proved just how far the Conservatives have strayed from being the ‘party of business’.

Sue Wilson MBE

by Sue Wilson MBE

When the pandemic forced employees all over the world to work from home (WFH) – many for the first time ever – remote working was regarded as an efficient and useful tool. Companies were quick to embrace the philosophy, provide the necessary tools and benefit from the cost-effectiveness working from home can bring.

Fast forward to post-lockdown Britain and WFH is no longer regarded by the government as a suitable method of working. In response, companies and individuals benefitting from remote working practices are less WFH and more, WTF?

Efficiency minister living in the past

Having encouraged the British public to ‘stay home, save lives’, it seems the government has made another about-turn. The first obvious criticism of WFH came from the Brexit opportunities and government efficiency minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, back in April. He insisted civil servants should immediately return to their offices, claiming it was important for the public to see that the government was working properly. I can’t argue with the reasoning – we’d all like to see evidence of the government ‘working properly’ – but I suspect we’re all far more concerned with the efficiency and decision-making abilities of our politicians than our civil servants.

An ‘insulting’ note left by Rees-Mogg for civil servants not at the desks drew widespread condemnation, not least from Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA trade union, responsible for civil servants and public service professionals. Penman said, “With every pronouncement and display like this, he demonstrates that he has no clue how the modern workplace operates and cares little about the effective delivery of vital public services”.

When a photograph of Rees-Mogg recently appeared in The Telegraph, sat behind a neat desk, free of modern technology, his lack of understanding of the modern workplace was again brought into question. Who, in this modern age, doesn’t have a computer on their desk? Personally, I found the lack of a quill more of a surprise.

WFH doesn’t work, says workshy PM

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has a rather different take on why we should all be back in the office. WFH simply doesn’t work, apparently. Speaking as one whose job it is literally to work from home, his entire justification is based on personal experience – that of being a lazy, easily distracted, workshy laggard. Rather than demonstrate how inefficient home-workers are, Johnson has reaffirmed his own inadequacies to the nation.

Once again, a fridge was to feature largely in this PM story. Apparently, cheese is a terrible distraction from the business of running the country (into the ground). Coffee too. Then there’s the slow walk to and from the fridge, wasting more valuable work time. This surprised me frankly, as I rather assumed the PM would have a fridge under his desk. But perhaps that one is just for wine.

Whether the PM spoke with cabinet members before making his anti WFH pronouncement is unclear. It’s hard to imagine that those ministers rarely seen in Westminster – Gove springs to mind – would be comfortable having to be in the office on a regular basis. Nor will the likes of former attorney general Geoffrey Cox be too delighted, I imagine, preferring to conduct his business from the Caribbean.

WFH: the pros

Regardless of the ramblings of a behind-the-times minister supposedly responsible for ‘government efficiency’, or a lazy workshy PM, there are considerable benefits for employers and employees alike.

For the individual, perhaps the most obvious benefit is the ruling out of expensive, time-consuming and stressful commuting. While saving countless hours, and in many cases thousands of pounds, a year, the removal of unnecessary travel also benefits the environment. Something that, supposedly, is high on our government’s agenda (not so’s you would notice).

Another considerable benefit is the impact on work-life balance. Working from home provides more independence and flexibility. This can be demonstrated by the freedom to work in your pyjamas or to time-shift your day to start/end when it suits. That flexibility also means the avoidance of being tied to a particular location, suitable for travel to and from the office. To not exploit the opportunity, should you so choose, to work from a remote location, or even another country, would seem a terrible waste of modern technological advantages.

You could also develop new skills while working at home, such as self-discipline and communication. Thanks to the pandemic, many home-workers have become experts in virtual meetings by necessity. The avoidance of more formal in person meetings is also widely regarded as a benefit, alongside the freedom from interruption by work colleagues.

Employers benefit from having staff work remotely too, with considerable cost-savings and efficiencies. Those efficiencies help keep profits up and prices down, which also benefits their customers.

WFH: the cons

Of course, the freedom from working with others can also be seen as a negative – not everyone works best, or efficiently, in isolation. The lack of opportunity to collaborate with or to learn from others may make some employees feel as though they are missing out.

A common complaint from remote workers is the risk of forgetting to ‘clock off’, resulting in working longer hours. Work life can blur into home life, especially if you don’t have the luxury of physically separating your work area from your living area. That may also cause the appearance of being unprofessional, when the delivery driver rings the doorbell or the dog barks in the middle of an important Zoom meeting.

The recent announcement that 90,000 civil service jobs are to be axed may be a significant factor in the return to the office for public service professionals. For private businesses, and their employees, decisions on future WFH arrangements will be made based on common sense, business needs and cost-benefit analyses. The pronouncements of the PM and the efficiency minister will be largely disregarded as out-of-date, out-of-touch postering.

All that Johnson and Rees-Mogg have achieved with their comments on WFH is to prove just how far the Conservatives have strayed from being the ‘party of business’. They have failed business over Brexit, they have failed business over covid, they have failed business over the economy. WFH is just more proof that they don’t listen, they don’t learn and they don’t act. This government does not represent the needs of business. In fact, it’s difficult to see whose needs they do represent. Apart from their own.