To what extent do workers want to return to the office? It’s a question on everyone’s mind – none more so than Rishi Sunak. If Covid working habits stick post-lockdown, with a majority of people continuing to work from their living room, it’s not just the working day that will be fundamentally altered, but the wider economy too. The economic implications for the shops and services designed to cater to the office worker will be drastic: large parts of city centres and high streets may find themselves without customers, or enough business to turn a profit.
But these were not the main points the Chancellor made in his interview with the Daily Telegraph and the Sun, as part of a Conservative fringe event hosted by iNHouse Communications. Instead, Sunak pointed to another group losing out from the working at home mandate: young and inexperienced workers, who are only a few steps up on the career ladder. ‘Imagine you’ve just left college or university you start this job in a big company and you’re sitting at home on your own’, he told the papers. ‘How do you get to know your peers, how do you learn the culture of an organisation, how do you get those mentors, which are important for your career development?’
It’s a point that’s been made far too infrequently during the pandemic. While polls continue to suggest employees want to retain at least some degree of flexibility to work from home, younger people’s voices have largely been absent from the debate. Often in house shares or small flats, they have been cut off not just from the office, but from vital opportunities to socialise and network early in their careers.
The Chancellor also made the case for the spontaneity and creativity that is sparked when workers are together, arguing that ‘meetings that happen by chance’ and ‘people riffing off each other’ simply can’t happen in the same way over a Zoom call.