Why have ministers become so obsessed with where people are doing their work? The war on working from home has become one of the key themes of this Conservative party conference. Senior figures and backbenchers alike have launched attacks on those who are continuing to work remotely rather than returning to the traditional office set-up. At the start of the conference, former minister Jake Berry joked that ‘We have to end the Civil Service “woke-ing” from home — sorry, I mean working from home — but, let’s be honest, it often is “woke-ing”.’ This morning, Boris Johnson warned younger people that their colleagues would ‘gossip’ about them and they would miss out on opportunities if they stayed away from the workplace. Naturally party chair Oliver Dowden had a go this afternoon, telling civil servants to ‘get off their Pelotons and back to their desks’.
That last comment was particularly barbed, given Dowden has just left the Culture, Media and Sport department, where the permanent secretary Sarah Healey recently came under attack for telling a conference that working from home gave her a chance to hop on her cycling machine. It also doesn’t make a great deal of sense given ministers including Dowden have recently signed off plans to downsize their departments to the extent that not all their civil servants even have their own desks to sit at. The whole downsizing plan, aimed at saving money for the government, is based on working from home and in the regions. Most of them will be unlikely to afford the whopping cost of a Peloton bike, though.
Civil servants are an easy target, not least because they can’t argue back in public. At least ministers do have personal involvement in their working arrangements, whereas Johnson’s instructions that workers should avoid being ‘gossiped’ about were aimed more generally.
It would always be strange to hear a Conservative administration telling businesses how they should manage their office spaces and staffing arrangements. Even if it is true that most younger workers benefit from being around senior colleagues in the office, it is also true that most of them don’t have the space to work from home. This isn’t really the concern of a Conservative government. It’s down to bosses to decide how to train up their staff. Conservatives shouldn’t be meddlers at this level. Indeed, they’ve been giving workers more rights to request working from home.
It is all the stranger, though, because the Tories are trying to send a strong message to business that they won’t meddle on much bigger matters. The big row over supply chain problems and shortages is as angry as it is because ministers are keen to underline that they won’t swoop in and help businesses with every problem that comes along. They don’t think this is the role of government. They want to highlight that it isn’t their job post-pandemic because many sectors have got so used to huge government interventions. And yet they are concerning themselves with the location of people’s desks.
Even if the woke-ing from home debate is only really about civil servants, it doesn’t send a great message about ministers’ abilities if, in a globalised society, they can’t manage to work without people physically around them. Businesses have realised over the past few years that remote working tech actually improves productivity in a lot of instances. Oddly for a party that’s normally keen to say Whitehall should learn from the private sector, ministers don’t seem very keen to take this on board either. Or indeed to understand their own policies.
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