Will threatening people back to the office work?

Ministers are reported to have told The Telegraph that home workers might lose their jobs if they don’t get back to the office. Will threats work?

Business woman having a video call with coworker, working online from home at cozy atmosphere. Concept of remote work from home

For weeks the back to the office messages have been gathering pace in the press. The reports have all seemed designed to force people back through making them feel guilty about being at home. There has been an underlying menacing tone, with attacks on the more progressive corporates who are allowing their workers to decide when they want to return.

Now we have reported threats on the Telegraph’s front page [‘Go back to work or risk losing your job’, once again confusing back to work and back to the office] with the paper saying ministers have told it that if people don’t return to the office they could be in danger of losing their jobs. The report, which comes as Boris Johnson prepares to launch a ‘back to the office’ campaign, quotes a Government source as saying: “If they are only seeing workers once a fortnight then that could prove problematic for some employees in the future. We want employees to be careful what working arrangements they accept. Suddenly the word “restricted” is bandied about and people who have been working from home find themselves in the most vulnerable position.” Sacking someone because of where they work would be illegal. A minister is quoted saying: “There will be some economic consequences of shutdown. Companies will realise some people weren’t working as hard as they thought … There is going to be a review of how productive people are.”

The implication is that working from home makes people less productive, although the research suggests this is not the case. However, many people have had to work from home while homeschooling and doing childcare in the last few months, with women more likely to be in this position.

Clearly there are big concerns about SMEs in commuter cities and lack of footfall on the transport system, but it appears that there is little effort in some of the back to the office narrative to look at the whole picture, including people’s legitimate fears about public transport and social distancing if many people go back and ongoing childcare and other care issues or the fact that ‘normal’ was not working for a great many people before Covid. The same inability to view the whole picture is also being said of remote working campaigners by those who point out that it is mainly white collar workers who benefit from remote working because many people don’t have a choice over where they work.

As with all things these days, there are huge divisions and some degree of thought is needed to address them. Covid-19 has accelerated a remote working transformation that was already happening so there needs to be a proper vision for how it could be used positively to revive local areas and to reach out to more workers, including those with caring responsibilities or disabilities, and what can be done to help those businesses which are negatively affected – and the many other sectors facing huge change as a result of recession, automation, climate change and other likely ongoing disruption.

The threats, even if some parts of the Government are backtracking now with Health Secretary Matt Hancock saying remote working has worked, seem designed to sow fear. There are all sorts of issues associated with full-time remote working, for instance, there are legitimate concerns about onboarding younger workers and clearly some people just don’t respond well to it or have the facilities to do it, but we also need to recognise that, for many, there are all sorts of issues associated with working full time from the office. That’s why sensible employers are giving people more of a choice and leaning more towards a hybrid remote/office model. Unfortunately, though, not all employers treat their employees well and that is where Government comes in.

The Covid months have shown that many people can work from home successfully, defeating the old myths that they can’t [it was not enough that many women had already proved this before Covid]. Without that argument, all those who resist remote working merely because they can’t open their minds to it only seem to have pitting people against each other and threats. Fear is not a great way to motivate people and bring them together, which should surely be the role of Government in such difficult times.

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