Why the evidence counts on flexible working

Jacob Rees-Mogg is reported to have ordered an audit of flexible working in the civil service in case people are ‘skipping work’. In the process he shows just how out of touch he is.

employees visibly overworked

Office workers are stressed and overworked, the deadlines cannot be kept

I go through a news digest of HR-related stories first thing every morning. On Tuesday this was one of the entries:

Rees-Mogg calls for audit of flexi-time

Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg has demanded an audit of the use of flexible working across Whitehall amid fears civil servants are using the arrangement to skip work. He wants to know how many staff use such deals, including those on “informal flexible working arrangements”. He asks for “details of any controls…to ensure civil servants working flexibly are, in fact, working their contractual hours” by the end of the month.

My eye fell immediately on the words ‘amid fears civil servants are using the arrangement to skip work’. Who has these fears – is it mainly Jacob Rees-Mogg, at that point the outgoing  Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency? And what’s with the conflation, yet again, between Rees-Mogg’s well known antipathy towards remote working and flexible working generally which encompasses everything from flexi hours to annualised hours, compressed hours, term-time hours and part-time hours?

Rees-Mogg has just been named the new Business Secretary. While he’s got an extremely full in-tray and one of the main concerns has to be his views on climate change, the appointment doesn’t seem to augur well for any further action on flexible working, even as we continue to wait for any action on making the right to request it a day one right after a consultation last year. And a more top-down, distrustful attitude is not one that is likely to motivate workers generally. The announcement comes as we learn that Nadhim Zahawi has been named Minister for Equalities [a post that used to be called Minister for Women and Equalities] – make of that what you will. Truss may be the third woman prime minister, but what will that mean for women on the ground?

Eating cheese

Rees-Mogg ‘s views on remote working are similar to those of another politician from a similar background. Boris Johnson during the Olympics referred to people skiving if they worked from home – watching daytime tv and the like. The language used seems straight out of boarding school. Now, of course, he thinks it’s more about eating cheese. Yet the evidence doesn’t back up the suggestion that working from home means bunking off. Countless surveys have been done with managers saying that people are working just as hard, if not harder, when they work remotely.

If managers are worried about productivity they can measure it based on results. That is far more effective than measuring productivity based on whether someone is sitting at a desk near you – where they may be doing all kinds of things that are not work-related. One of my colleagues back in the day only used to start working at about 6pm, having chatted to everyone in the office [‘office politics’] and having done ‘research’ for the rest of the day.  The point is, being in the office does not equate to productivity and procrastinators and shirkers will procrastinate and shirk wherever they are based. Moreover, week after week of a regular rush-hour commute takes a fair bit of any productive energy you might have had.  Just look at the people slumped on the tube at the end of the working week.

It just seems that every day there is a reason given by people who are often completely out of touch about why working from home, formally or informally – or even hybrid working – is a bad thing. If it’s not about not being able to fully collaborate or selfishly depriving the young of chances to learn, it is about skiving. Basically they just don’t like it – mainly because it’s not what they are used to and it disturbs the status quo, which very much favours them.

That is not to say that working in an office doesn’t have some pros and that we are still very much in the experimental phase, trying to find out what works best. But that’s how progress occurs. The tide has already turned – change is happening, more change is coming and being chained to an office desk is not the future. Technology is advancing, everything is in turbulence, people’s lives are increasingly complicated and they are having to balance all sorts of things alongside work [in part due to the crumbling of our social infrastructure] and much, much more.  Anyone who ignores all of this and keeps spouting outdated ideas about work that are not based on the evidence of what makes people productive – and what hinders them –  will simply be swept away.

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