Boris Johnson’s latest comments on homeworking show he is out of touch with what the pandemic has been like for many working people and how the Government urgently needs to widen its focus on recovery.
Boris Johnson’s reported comments at the recent virtual Conservative spring forum about homeworking are par for the course. Asked whether there should be a ‘national hangover day’ once restrictions have eased [whatever that means], Johnson is reported to have said that the Chancellor was keen for people to get back to the office after months of working from home. He reportedly said: “The general view is people have had quite a few days off, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing for people to see their way round to making a passing stab at getting back into the office.”
It reminded me of something then London mayor Johnson said during the Olympics when he called homeworking a “skiver’s paradise“, declaring: “Some people will see the Games as an opportunity to work from home, in inverted commas. We all know that is basically sitting wondering whether to go down to the fridge to hack off that bit of cheese before checking your emails again. I don’t want to see too many of us doing that.”
I don’t know what world the Prime Minister is living in, but all the employers I’ve been talking to are worried about the exact opposite. They worry about presenteeism and the risk of burnout. Zoom fatigue is a real issue. Productivity is up, but a significant part of that uptick is thought to be due to people working longer hours.
What’s more, this is not normal homeworking – a point that seems to need to be made continuously. People are in the middle of a global pandemic; they have been isolated in their homes for months, some for over a year. They are worried about their families and about their own health. They have lost members of their families and not been able to properly mourn or even say goodbye. They have had to homeschool and work around their children, burning the candle at both ends, and are utterly exhausted. Has the Prime Minister ever tried to work while being constantly interrupted by any of his many children? Yet this has been the daily reality for many parents over the last months.
Many workers have been worried about their jobs; many have lost their jobs or are in insecure roles; some have been subjected to intense remote monitoring by their employers; businesses have been buffeted not just by the pandemic, but also by the Prime Minister’s form of Brexit. Mental health problems among workers have increased significantly. And yet, for the most part, people have kept going. In part it is because they want to do a good job; in part it is due to necessity. People who are worried about their jobs and their finances don’t tend to ‘skive’.
Homeworking does not equal skiving any more than office working does. Homeworking done well, based on trust and good quality jobs, is something many – but, of course, not all – workers want because it offers a break from the endless drudgery and stress of commuting; it offers more time with the family, if you get the balance right and being nearer to schools and childcare in case of emergencies; it offers more time to be connected to your community; it means less sickness because you are not exposed to the endless office and commuting bugs; it offers less pressure and rush; it means not having to get up at 5am every day and feeling on the point of collapse by Friday…As with everything there are pluses and minuses and it is up to individuals to decide what works best for them.
There is a clear economic push for people to flock back to the major city centres and spend money to support associated jobs. Covid has accelerated a move away from urban metropolises, but, again, this does not have to be a negative or indeed a remote vs office argument. There are more sides to the story than this.
Ireland, for instance, had just unveiled a new plan for rural Ireland which proposes ‘worker-led’ decentralisation, focused on people rather than buildings and on giving people the opportunity to have good career opportunities while living in their local communities. The plan includes the setting up of more than 400 remote working hubs across Ireland and a review of tax arrangements for remote working for both employers and employees. The government is also said to be looking at incentives to attract remote workers to live in rural towns and revive them, based on similar schemes in some parts of the US.
A recent study by think tank Demos calls on the Government to promote remote working as a regeneration tool and a way of enabling a wider section of the population to access good quality jobs. It’s not just about full homeworking either: hybrid working is what surveys show people want – a mix of office and home-based working. Demos says the Government should incentivise the establishment of more local offices and hybrid working initiatives to give people the flexibility they want and also make progress on the ‘levelling up’ agenda, by spreading spending power across a wider geographic area.
The pre-Covid economy was clearly not working for many, many people yet significant parts of government have failed to get the message and to listen. Narrow conversations with the same time of people in the room don’t build better economies.