After seizing so much power during the pandemic, Boris Johnson’s government is having trouble working out where its remit now ends. The division used to be fairly simple: the state provided public services but left people and companies free to organise their own affairs. Ministers now talk as if they are in charge of everything — including whether people should or should not work from the office.
Lockdown would not have been possible without digital technology, which enabled so many to work from home. For many companies, remote working has opened up all sorts of new possibilities. But the drawbacks are obvious. Younger workers are denied the training that the workplace offers. They also miss out on opportunities for building up working relationships, skills and salaries.
Official advice to work from home was lifted on 19 July, along with most remaining Covid restrictions. Yet the government has noticed, to its alarm, that not much has changed. According to a survey by a management consultancy, only 12 per cent of staff who notionally work in city centre offices are currently making a daily journey into work, hardly any more than before lockdown ended. One anonymous cabinet minister was quoted saying civil servants who do not show up to work should have their pay cut.
Rishi Sunak has warned young employees that they would be damaging their career prospects if they don’t work in the office. The Chancellor is quite right: no one will rise to the top of any corporation from their bedroom. While commuting might be fraught and office politics can be a bore, the office is a place of learning (especially from the mistakes of colleagues) as well as social mobility. Employees working in close proximity can bounce ideas off one another in a way that is difficult over the internet. Sunak himself made the point when he said he was still in touch with the mentors who saw him through the early days of his working life.
But there are other industries which rely far less on employees bouncing ideas off each other. Accounting, secretarial and much digital work has been done from home in a way that suits the worker and the boss (who no longer has to worry so much about forking out for office space or preparing for the next lockdown). Some companies find the collaboration of the office environment essential, others do not. This is something to be resolved by each company, not decided by government ministers.
What worries Sunak is that jobs done from home in Buckinghamshire can equally be done from Bangladesh and other countries where global remote working is now a rising source of income. Data processing, financial control and computer programming uses the same kind of language worldwide. Companies such as Upwork have long specialised in finding cheap, willing workers for employers looking to cover short-term, low-cost projects. This outsourcing can be expected to continue.
But this question is not for governments to resolve. Ministers have no place to tell anyone who does not work for them to get back to the office. The post-pandemic economy will certainly have profound implications for cities and commuting. Every office now lives under the threat of a new lockdown, so hesitancy is understandable. It’s a risk many companies cannot afford to take. All this poses obvious dangers to the ecosystem of city life: the coffee and sandwich shops in cities who cater for commuters, for instance. Projects based on the assumption of ever more intercity commuting, like HS2, now look far more shaky.
But why do cities deserve special support when the government has been happy to watch provincial high streets decline as business drains away to out-of-town shopping centres? With more people working from home, many suburbs are booming again. Home working may well help rebalance an economy where perhaps too much activity had become concentrated in the centres of our largest cities.
The City may stage a triumphant comeback: some employers, such as Goldman Sachs, have made it clear that they want all workers to return to the office. Others, including Lloyds Bank and NatWest, are not so insistent. Time will tell which employers have got it right. Employers who insist on everyone working in the office may benefit from the cluster effect. Those which allow more flexible working may find themselves able to attract a wider range of recruits.
By closing schools during lockdown, which history may yet judge to be one of the most harmful decisions of the pandemic, ministers inflicted grave damage on children’s education. The government’s policy of urging people to ‘Protect the NHS’ by not using it (a political message that NHS chiefs at the time thought reckless) will also have long-term repercussions given how many did not come forward for treatment. The backlog will be horrendous. Repairing such damage ought to be this government’s priority. Whether employees decide to work at home or in the office is a matter ministers would be better off leaving well alone.