Caroline Nokes, Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, says threatening people back to the office is not going to work and ministers need to embrace change and come up with imaginative ways to ensure both productivity and work life balance.
When the Minister for Women and Equalities appeared in front of my Select Committee back in April, she was very clear the imposed national experiment in working from home could be great for the way work and family interacted going forward. I even looked up the transcript where she criticised “presenteeism” and, whilst acknowledging the challenges that do exist when trying to juggle work and caring responsibilities, she was very positive about how we had all discovered we could be productive without going anywhere near the office.
So why the new-found Government drive to threaten us all back into the office? That will never work. Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages to being 100% office-based, just as there are the same benefits (albeit reversed) to working from home all the time. So shouldn’t the Government be encouraging us, as infection rates and mortality drop, to experiment with hybrid models? Of course, these will only work if public transport plays ball. A friend tells me she has saved £500 per month by working from home during the pandemic, but wants to find a way to have a flexible monthly season ticket that would perhaps let her make 10 return commutes a month. It would save her time and money at the station in the mornings she needed to go to the office, and if she only needed to go eight times in a month, well, South Eastern would be the winner.
Now I do recognise this is a particular challenge for London, which, having returned to Westminster this week, I can still vouch for being very quiet. There are many retailers, bars and restaurants still closed, which is a tragedy for those businesses and their employees, but is it the admin assistant’s responsibility to keep Pret in business? Moreover, if you look at my home town it has been bustling for weeks, with long queues for tables on the al fresco dining area outside Josie’s. So, have small towns benefited from the former commuter’s desire to stay closer to home?
I have no doubt we are in a time of great change. We have demonstrated we can be productive working from home, and if the Back to School drive succeeds, we will be even more so, as fewer parents will have to juggle the needs of their children with the needs of their employer or customer. But we do need to be cognisant of the many for whom home working is not an option. Those on the front line of care, retail, hospitality have never had that choice – it’s been furlough or work, interacting with others on a daily basis. They will not have suffered the loneliness and isolation that others have sought to avoid through zoom, but they will have struggled to find childcare availability as many informal arrangements fell foul of lockdown rules.
There is clearly a real job to do making the future of work fit with our new expectations. That is a job not just for the Department of Work and Pensions, but also Communities and Local Government, who are going to have to address the future of city centres. The shape of working may have changed permanently, and perhaps instead of a drive to build new houses the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government needs to be working out how the reduced need for office space could see commercial buildings transformed into the housing of the future. That will take real skill and imagination. I have lived in a flat in a converted office block and it wasn’t great, but as we crave green space and the great outdoors maybe it is the solution to tearing up the Green Belt. And part of that might be about home design which includes space for work stations because the office chair has not been much of an augmentation to my kitchen table.
My message to Ministers and employers has to be that flexibility is key, and to ask nicely! Nobody wants to be threatened back to their desk. That is likely to leave people inclined to dig their heels in. But find solutions that work for both parties and recognise that it is possible to improve productivity and work life balance, in many instances by just ripping a two-hour commute from every day.
*The Rt Hon Caroline Nokes is Member of Parliament for Romsey and Southampton North and Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee.