When writing about working from home (WFH), I am worried about being charged with hypocrisy. Not to let too much light in on the ConHome magic, but we members of the editorial team do, nominally, work from home.
Usually, that actually means working from any spot in Westminster with some Wi-Fi and a functioning kettle. But still. The usual go-to column for the eager young Tory Boy would be to lambast homeworking as the prerogative of idle “snivel servants” and under-productive graduates (shuffles nervously). A little hypocrisy is always useful in a columnist. But writing that from the comfort of my own sofa would be going a tad too far.
So it is with a great deal of relief that I can report to any reader expecting some rent-a-moan screed can rest easy. Rather than try to put the cork back in the bottle post-Covid, we Conservatives need to recognise the WFH revolution is here to stay.
Working from home was on the rise before the pandemic. But confining most of the population – excepting those who knew Boris Johnson – to their homes naturally gave that process a kick up the arse.
As Paul Johnson wrote on Monday, a substantial majority of employees – about 60 per cent – are permanently at their place of work. That’s for the simple reason that most jobs cannot be done from home. You cannot operate a till or drive a bus via Zoom; you cannot perform brain surgery or wait a table between taking the dog for a walk and popping to the gym.
Those working from home thus tend to be those of us who would have traditionally been in an office. Liberated by laptops and mobiles, we are but a phone call or e-mail away from our managers (or editors). Typically, we WFH enthusiasts have jobs the Yanks would call white-collar, and are thus far more likely to be (shudder) graduates.
According to Johnson, about a tenth of us now work almost entirely from home. The remaining 30 per cent have some form of hybrid working, mixing a few days at home with a few in the office. Around a quarter of all working days are now spent at home: five times that of pre-Covid.
By any metric, this is a remarkable transformation of our working lives. WFH is rapidly going from a perk owed to or pursued by those with particular circumstances or occupations to a right expected by anyone entering the labour market – and which the Labour party might enshrine in law.
By contrast, we Conservatives have seemed rather more sceptical of this sizable shift. Worried by reports that nine in ten workers would like to continue WFH in some form post-lockdown, Boris Johnson embarked on a publicity campaign to make the “emotional case” for mixing with colleagues in a work environment (a subject on which he could pronounce with useful personal experience).
Unfortunately, the ex-Prime Minister’s pleas fell upon the stony ground – especially, and most consequentially, with those employed just down the street from Number 10. Whitehall appears to have developed a particular enthusiasm for WFH – and the taxpayer has been shelling out to facilitate it via comfy chairs and specialist headphones.
What this enabled was a remarkable drop-off in civil servants coming into the office. Last year, about 80 per cent of government departments were operating with less than half of all desks in use. Before the pandemic, average staff occupancy across Whitehall was over three-quarters.
The eyebrow-raising numbers didn’t end there. The Department for Education was operating at 25 per cent capacity; the Foreign Office, despite the war in Ukraine, was only at 31 per cent. Hence last year’s post-it note campaign by Jacob Rees-Mogg to get civil servants back in the office.
The ex-Minister for Government Efficiency received his fair share of scorn for his quest. But he was right to want to tackle the problem. As Raphael Marshall’s whistleblowing highlighted, a culture of WFH underlay the Foreign Office’s disastrous handling of the withdrawal of Afghanistan. It plays its part in passport or driving licence delays – and the 7.4 per cent fall in public sector productivity since 2019.
As someone or other once told me, our country’s number one problem is a lack of growth. Before the financial crisis, our economy grew at more than 2 per cent a year on average; since then, only 0.5 per cent. Our wages are thousands lower than they could have been, and public borrowing higher. If WFH is going to worsen our productivity even further, how can a fiscally responsible government allow it?
But – before Rishi Sunak plucks Rees-Mogg from the GB News Studio to go and stick a note on the door of every voter working from home – an important caveat. The example of the civil service is at the forefront of ministers’ minds because they encounter it every day. Just because WFH might be a bad thing for Whitehall doesn’t make it a drag for the rest of the country.
As Sally Hogg puts it, productivity improvement “requires employees to be motivated and skilled, and to be well-managed”. If that is one of the causes of our new British disease, it began long before WFH became so popular. Campaigning against it will not deliver 2.5 per cent growth and ignores the benefits it brings.
For a start, a combination of working from home and in the office brings employees the best of both worlds. Creating a successful team and passing on tacit ‘water cooler’ knowledge and experience cannot happen whilst employees are confined to Zoom. But many will also be able to concentrate harder and work more efficiently from home. It’s not all Pelotons and Monster Munch.
Hence why more than nine out of 10 current homeowners would like to WFH at least some of the time. A further 66 per cent, according to King’s College London, disagree with politicians telling them to stop. 80 per cent believe it is unacceptable for politicians to claim those doing so are working less hard – including 66 per cent of Conservatives.
This shouldn’t be surprising. As our Deputy Editor has written, the idea that we live only to work is profoundly un-Conservative. Wanting to avoid commutes, have greater freedom to pursue hobbies , or the ability to pick your children up from school is not. If WFH helps make the facts of life more Conservative, how can it be so bad?
Plus, since women who WFH are more likely to want babies, it helps tackle that demographic decline with which we are currently so preoccupied. Greater flexibility in labour hours enables parents to spend more time with their children. It might help tackle our higher-than-average female inactivity rate with which Jeremy Hunt mediated on in the last Budget. Surveys suggest working mothers are more likely to take jobs that offer flexible hours.
Saving costs on office space would also free up businesses to invest in further productivity gains. There is also a role for government to play: 9 out of 10 home-workers have reported poor or unreliable connectivity at some point, making the long-promised rollout of faster broadband even more urgent.
The wonders of the market will mean a natural balance will be struck between home and office working as businesses realise that the enthusiasm for WFH will not go away. As firms that offer WFH outcompete in attracting talent from those who don’t, it will be established as a norm without the need for Keir Starmer to decree it should be so.
That doesn’t mean that the Government shouldn’t try to encourage back to the office those under its aegis who need to be there. But extending Rees-Mogg’s post-it project beyond Whitehall would be unwise, unpopular, unproductive, and un-Conservative.