Why not ignore the Government’s call to return to the office?

Last week, Government MPs and the forces of darkness Daily Mail were calling on civil servants to stop lazing around at home and get back to work, in part as an example to the private sector, and perhaps as support to their friends in the commercial property sector.

Meanwhile, many sectors are recognising the challenges and opportunities that allowing their staff greater flexibility in terms of where they work bring. I would argue that, ultimately, there are a number of key issues that will determine whether or not our office culture can, will or should adapt.

The end of “command and control”?

Can you trust your staff to perform their duties without being physically overseen? Remote management relies on a more adult relationship between manager and managed, and the use of management data to spot poor performance will become ever more important. That gives organisations, especially Government departments, an incentive to be more selective in their target setting, and focus more on customer outcomes over administrative box-ticking exercises, on quality over quantity. That in turn offers the hope of better, more efficient government.

Economic redistribution, greater opportunity

Cities draw economic activity away from their hinterland, causing often low-paid employees in service industries to follow the activity in order to find employment. Working from home means more spend locally, and thus more employment opportunities. Add to that the savings from less frequent commuting, which are likely to be recycled into other spending, and you can see how rural areas, country towns and so-called “dormitory towns” might thrive.

And, if you don’t need to go into an office, you don’t need to live near it, increasing the opportunities for those who otherwise might not apply to fill vacancies and for those for whom working in, or getting to, an office is challenging – for example, those with disabilities or caring responsibilities.

Climate change

Less commuting means lower emissions generated, and whilst some of that may be replaced by increased levels of local travel, the move from fossil fuels to renewables for electricity generation offers a route towards meeting future targets as energy use shifts from powering urban office buildings to private homes.

Stronger, more engaged communities

I have, with more free time available to me through reduced commuting, been a more effective Parish councillor, and many others have felt more able to get involved in the life of my village. And that’s true across the country, offering the voluntary and charitable sectors a new pool of potential volunteers and encouraging people to take a greater interest in the communities they live in.

It’s not all positive, of course. Working from home doesn’t work for everybody, and not everyone has a place at home from which they can operate relatively undisturbed. Others prefer the discipline of the nine to five, the camaraderie of the workplace, or need more immediate support.

But I would argue that, by offering staff the opportunity to work from home as much as they might reasonably choose, employers offer choice and promote freedom and personal responsibility, both being concepts that liberals should support. For it does seem that the current Conservative Party prefers coercion and imposition over choice and freedom, and we should be challenging them on that.

* Mark Valladares is mostly working from home. He doesn’t have a Peloton, preferring a gentle stroll around his village instead.

Read more by or more about .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.
Advert

13 Comments

  • >“Working from home means more spend locally, and thus more employment opportunities. Add to that the savings from less frequent commuting, which are likely to be recycled into other spending, and you can see how rural areas, country towns and so-called “dormitory towns” might thrive.

    And, if you don’t need to go into an office, you don’t need to live near i”

    It also permits a better work-life balance, for example:
    Last week my family were able to rent a cottage in Devon (okay I know holiday cottages can be controversial), my partner and I continued to work, my son (half-term) was able to go surfing and my daughter at Exeter (reading week) was able to spend time with us, get fed and have her flat’s laundry done…

  • Peter Watson 18th Oct '21 - 5:57pm

    For an old fart like myself, working from home has been great and I want to continue with it as much as possible! I’ve been doing my job for long enough that I know what I have to do and how to do it, and I am just as effective (if not more so because of the flexibility) at home as I am in the office. Or in Roland’s holiday cottage! 😉

    But I realise that I am very fortunate, and my perspective is very much that of a comfortably-off middle-aged middle-class white-collar “knowledge worker” that I suspect is far from unique on LDV!

    So while I wholly agree with the article, I feel that it comes from a relatively privileged position with which not everyone is lucky enough to be able to identify, and that there are many other factors involved. For younger people, learning the ropes and informal networking is so much more difficult if the experienced people all stay at home so there are good business reasons for wanting those older people in the office as much as possible. And not everybody has a suitable work environment at home: I have a dedicated study/office/den with a proper chair and a stand-up/sit-down desk, so I am not borrowing the kitchen table or sharing a space with others. Also, employers still have obligations to ensure our health & safety which is not helped if we flit between home, a coffee shop and a holiday let!

  • Some employees will prefer to work from home and save the cost/time of commuting, and others will prefer a working environment with more interaction with colleagues.

    The extent to which any of them will care about the impact on productivity will be very dependant on whether the company shares the benefits of increased productivity with them.

    A company with suitable and fair incentives and profit sharing has less need to worry about keeping an eye on its employees.

  • James Fowler 18th Oct '21 - 9:17pm

    Well said Peter Watson. WFH has been far too comfortable for some and the complacency about the pain inflicted on the less fortunate by the same blanket policy has been quite horrible to observe.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 18th Oct '21 - 10:55pm

    @ James F.

    If by comfortable, you mean permitting a better quality of life, then I would suggest that you need to take a step back before taking a line similar to that of the Daily Mail.

    The ideal is for workers to perform their duties in an environment that helps them to perform most effectively. As I noted above, for some an office works better, and for others, working from home (or elsewhere) will work best. I suspect that for many, some hybrid arrangement will be where they settle.

    Management will need to be smarter about how they measure performance, but would it be so awful if someone was able to be as productive as they had been in 60% of the time applied previously? Are we seriously suggesting that we pay people for their time rather than their output?

    But the idea is not that people use working from home as a means of avoiding work, or cheating their employer – that’s going to be a disciplinary issue regardless of where the work gets done.

    And, of course, what the task to be performed is may well determine where it is best done. But, having during the working from home phase learnt how to webchat and manage contact centre software, I have been surprised just how much technology can support remote working.

  • Peter Reisdorf 18th Oct '21 - 11:19pm

    For people like me, living alone and working from home, the last lockdown in the middle of winter was a nightmare. I finished work and went out for a walk, but didn’t see anyone. I’m delighted to be back in the office three days a week.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Oct '21 - 12:19am

    Mark, the best piece I think in a while, on here! And the standard is often high!!

    Liberal, must indicate, flexible, otherwise it is not a Liberalism I recognise.

    As with conferences, this way forward, reaches the parts, other methods cannot reach! The strongest argument of course, often, the damage to the environment, and more than anything, to people also, well being, suffering, by frequent commuting very long journeying, especially.

    For many, the most important argument, is health and disability issues. Individuals have their particularly identified needs, but to lessen Covid, to beat, rather than accept this virus, at least more so than now, working from home, is the best thing we could do!

  • I spent all my working life working from home until the last fifteen years when I worked in offices with others in the house next door! I rejoice that I never had to commute anywhere after being a student on a dead straight bus route with slow moving traffic that allowed opportunities for reading to and from town. But going next door for something like traditional office hours enabled me to compare workspace experiences. I came to the conclusion that working in isolation exacerbated a tendency to overwork but me not being at home offered a kind of liberation to my nearest and dearest!

  • James Fowler 19th Oct '21 - 7:55pm

    Mark Valladares. You’re right to point out that there are benefits from WFH, and where there is no harm done, then why shouldn’t people do it.

    However, I think there are some wider moral and practical problems. To me, from the outset it’s been perfectly clear that for some people WFH has been a kind of unofficial strike/sabbatical they’ve always wanted. What’s wrong with that, you say. Well, meanwhile, others, usually poorer, usually disadvantaged, have had to slave away harder, more dangerously and precariously than ever. The open rejoicing over free quality time, improved gardens and new office extensions in spare bedrooms reminded me of the policemen who used to wave cash at striking miners.

    Secondly, it’s increasingly clear that WFH really does cause harm in both subtle and explicit ways. To me, this is really just a matter of common sense. If public facing institutions no longer face the public or are closed, then the public realm is diminished. Who suffers? Well, the people who depend on their claims being processed, their ailments treated, their children educated etc.

    I accept that much of this may sound like a Mail editorial, but these are questions that need to asked nonetheless.

  • I don’t understand why James Fowler’s comments have anything to do with the Daily Mail.

    A concerning feature of the pandemic response was the way that a 60 year old with diabetes in a job that can’t be done from home eg a London bus driver had to carry on working whilst a young healthy white collar professional was protected by home working and furlough.

    They should have introduced sabbaticals for the former group with the latter offered location based work in return for furlough payments.

    That is not right wing or “Daily Mail” at all in my view.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 20th Oct '21 - 1:41pm

    @ James,

    Any major change in working patterns is likely to have negative effects on some, especially if it is applied uniformly. And that’s why I effectively call for greater flexibility in the way we work, so that it allows many previously excluded from the workplace by issues of disability, or caring responsibilities, or geographic isolation to be enabled to take their place in the workforce.

    But has WFH really acted as an informal strike/sabbatical for some and, if it has, what have management done about it? What happened to their performance management systems?

    And as for public facing institutions, you may be a bit late for that argument. HMRC, for example, have closed their public enquiry offices, and many other Government departments have done the same as they centralise activity in a limited number of locations and move to telephony and webchat. However, there doesn’t seem to be a suggestion that, outside of pandemic situations, face to face service delivery is likely to be very different to what it was previously, unless you know different.

    @ Marco,

    If someone is arguing a case similar to that of the Daily Mail, I see no difficulty in pointing that out, as James acknowledged.

    But the initial guidance from Government was that, if people could work from home, they should, thus restricting the spread of Covid. In doing so, the demand for public transport was reduced, allowing more vulnerable workers in that sector to be furloughed.

    As for your last paragraph, if people were working from home, they couldn’t be furloughed, a point I make with a degree of authority given that I was working a helpline for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme for a few weeks last summer. Unless, perhaps, you’re arguing that those who were working from home should have been making furlough payments, which might be a reasonable interpretation of your phraseology…

  • @ Mark Valladares

    I’m not against working from home as it one of the least disruptive responses to the pandemic however the concern is that the right to not have to go to work has been based on social class rather than health risk, with the risk of catching Covid transferred to the working classes.

    Saying a comment is “right-wing” or “Daily Mail” seems to be a stock response for some liberals, but for me it is a bit below the level and more suited to 6th form debating societies.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 20th Oct '21 - 9:47pm

    @ Marco,

    When someone uses a line of argument that is as actually used by the Daily Mail, then it is entirely reasonable to describe it as such. The fact that the Daily Mail has a long and ignoble tradition of attacking the public sector in its capacity as the communications arm of the Conservative Party is a contributory factor, I guess.

    If you find that to be more suited to sixth form debating societies, then perhaps you might reflect that most of us didn’t attend schools with a debating society, sixth form or otherwise.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

*
*
Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?

Advert



Recent Comments

  • Peter Martin
    @ Joe, "The same principle applies whether it is household debt, corporate debt or government debt." Not really. Households and corporation...
  • Peter
    The Greens in Germany are driving the country to economic suicide. They propose to shut down the newest and most reliable nuclear stations thereby taking out 8....
  • Peter Hirst
    When someone decides to live somewhere else and is prepared to do anything to get there all you can do is expedite it. Attempting to prevent them is just making...
  • Peter Hirst
    There used to be a system of payments for people left unconnected, I think. Getting that compensation right so it incentivies reconnections would seem to be the...
  • Fiona
    No John. Many people understand the need for good quality building standards, including insulation. Thinking that we should have good housing is not on any of t...