Getting balance wrong on flexible working will harm society, minister warns

Matt Warman’s Future of Work handover warns of potential “huge detriment” to society

By Jim Dunton

02 Sep 2022

Outgoing PM Boris Johnson has been warned by one of his newly-appointed caretaker ministers that the government has a major role in supporting the development of flexible working to enable the nation’s economy to deliver peak performance.

No.10 appointed Matt Warman to conduct a high-level review of strategic issues related to work in the UK earlier this year. The Boston and Skegness MP was subsequently made minister of state at the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport following the slew of resignations in July that forced Johnson's decision to step down as prime minister.

In a just-published letter summarising his Future of Work Review recommendations, Warman says the  “juggle” between where people’s jobs are based, how often they work from home, and the location of those they care for “will define the future of work”.

In May – when the terms of reference for the review were published – Johnson infamously claimed  working from home “doesn’t work” and suggested that in his personal experience it was a source of cheese-eating and low productivity. His comments followed months of attacks on civil servants keen to maintain remote-working arrangments introduced during the pandemic for at least part of every week.

Warman’s letter to Johnson said flexible working is key to increasing participation in the labour market and ensuring that talent located across the nation can be better connected to opportunities.

“Government should therefore continue to consider the rights of those who wish to work flexibly and develop a better understanding of what ‘flexibility’ means for the various groups that make up the workforce,” he wrote.

Warman said making the wrong strategic call on flexible  working would see older people, women, and the disabled most affected “to the huge detriment of society as a whole”.

“If we get it right, more people will be able to stay in work for longer, benefitting the entire economy and their own health and wellbeing,” he said. “Yet this must be balanced with the need to make sure that young people in particular benefit from the supportive environment that physical workplaces can provide.

“Flexibility and remote working means that people do not need to make a choice between continuing to work or caring for children and ageing relatives.

“Businesses know the value of getting this right; and it is only reasonable that they expect the government to support them to do so.”

Other themes Warman recommended for further analysis included exploring ways government can to maintain its leadership on artificial intelligence and automation – at the same time as supporting areas at greatest risk of being “left behind” by technological advances.

He also urged No.10 to continue supporting “agile” localised approaches to assessing and meeting skills demands, and to focus on maintaining global leadership on workers’ rights.

Warman said his new role at DCMS meant it was “right” to step back and “allow others” to take forward the issues he identified.

“Ultimately, it is action, rather than any review, that will prepare the UK economy for future challenges and address the issues facing workers and employers,” he said.

He added that officials at the Cabinet Office, the Treasury, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Department for Education were taking forward work to look at the issues he raised “in detail”.

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