Opinion: In the office, but out of touch

The prime minister and chancellor have both begun encouraging people back to the workplace after Covid. But government would be much better served learning the flexible working lessons of the pandemic
Working from home Photo: PA

By Dave Penman

13 Apr 2021

It’s all too easy to have a pop at politicians for not understanding the realities of modern employment.

Many have life experiences that are very different to your average working Joe or Josephine. It’s why they should tread carefully when opining about some issues, particularly if they’re attempting to suggest some form of personal knowledge of the subject.

So, what to make of the apparently spontaneous comments from the prime minister and chancellor around returning to workplaces over the last few weeks?  They both have form on this front, given last summer’s attempts to shame civil servants back in to workplaces as part of their ill-advised and ultimately ill-fated drive to get people back to city centres. 

Is this where we’re heading again? Rishi Sunak’s attempt at describing spontaneous workplace bonhomie with “people riffing off each other” was achingly crass. It reminded me of a dad nervously interrupting his teenager screaming obscenities while playing Call of Duty: Warzone, trying to explain how he was the first kid in computer club at school to have a Commodore Amiga. Cool.

Riffing Rishi might have been referring to his own experience as a hedge fund manager of course, but I suspect it’s more a push back from what those in government see as an imbalance in the debate on remote working. While he later conceded in the interview that there could be “some extra flexibility”, it all sounded very begrudging.

Similarly, when the prime minister said “the general view is people have had quite a few days off, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing for people to see their way round to making a passing stab at getting back into the office”, it makes you wonder who this general is and where he’s been working for the last decade. As ever with the prime minister, you need to get beyond the smoke screen of the deliberately provocative terminology, which he delivers in a manner to suggest it was merely an off the cuff remark.

A few weeks earlier he’d said: “Believe me, the British people will be consumed once again with their desire for the genuine face-to-face meeting that makes all the difference to the deal or whatever it is.”
Is this just a remote, almost luddite view of the working world which they want to apply regardless of evidence or another cack-handed attempt at addressing concerns about city centre economies? 

Avoid polarised debate

The danger here is we see this as a polarised debate, between slackers who want to spend their entire week in their PJs and go-getters looking to seal the deal with spontaneous moments of ingenuity that you can only get when you’re close enough to a client or colleague to smell their halitosis. Sunak’s comment that staff will “vote with their feet” if they’re forced out of the office is an example of this.

Most employees want a balance and most balanced arrangements will suit employers and employees alike.

The lockdown has shown millions of workers, managers and employers that remote working can help with work-life balance and be as, if not more, productive.
Employers that can, but won’t, offer this flexibility will be the ones seeing the feet walking out the door.

The civil service has an opportunity to be at the forefront of this quiet industrial revolution and have a competitive edge when its fighting with one hand tied behind its back on pay.

As we emerge from the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the civil service, like countless other employers, is going to have to navigate some very complex issues with its workforce. What does and does not need to be done in the workplace? How do you accommodate different preferences across thousands of employees? How do you deal with the legitimate concerns of those who have to pack on to public transport for the first time in over a year?

This will take time to get right, so my plea to ministers is this: save us from your faux spontaneous riffs and your misspoken insults. Trust in those whose expertise and responsibility it is to deliver public services and allow them to get on with it. 

Dave Penman is the general secretary of the FDA union. He tweets @FDAgensec

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