Sunday, October 17, 2021

Ministers rail against working from home, but this is the key to their own “leveling” agenda

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The government’s own plans include fewer public service offices and more remote working – and this could be a response to the revitalization of “backward” cities

For civil servants, it is part of the job to get through the party convention season. Ministers are away from London and stalking their political stuff, while in Whitehall the politically impartial government machinery has to keep ticking.

Sometimes officials prepare for a big announcement knowing they need to translate the lines of applause into real politics. But this year, community service at the Tory meeting in Manchester was at the heart of the joke, with repeated taunts that its metropolitan workers would rather lounge at home than come to the office.

Former minister Jake Berry set the tone with that barb: “We need to stop the civil service ‘waking up’ from home. I’m sorry, I mean working from home, but let’s face it, it wakes up a lot. “

The next day, Tory Party leader and former Minister of Culture, Oliver Dowden, came in. Dowden complained that the Conservative Campaign headquarters had more staffed desks than his old department. The public wants the government to “lead by example” and get more officials “back to work,” he said.

Dowden went much further by referring to reported statements by his former senior official Sarah Healey that she used her Peloton exercise bike “when I have a bit of time.”

Healey had said at a tech conference that “the lack of travel time eating me up in my day” had led to an improvement in their wellbeing and their ability to see their children more.

But Dowden told a fringe meeting, “People need to get out of their pelotons and return to their desks.” Amid the crowd’s laughter, it felt like a surreal remake of Norman Tebbit’s’ 80s advice to the work anthems to “get on your bike.”

As if we had not understood the message, Boris Johnson declared in his own conference speech “We will and must see people in the office again”, not least to help young people learn new skills. Face-to-face meetings and “water cooler gossip” are important incentives for a productive workforce, he added.

Given that the Prime Minister himself is currently “out of office” on the Costa del Sol, there is of course a bitter irony for many in his remark to an interviewer that “you have to be there in person” to realize your potential.

Not only does Johnson work from home at No 10, he also regularly indulges in remote working when he works at Checkers, and we’re constantly being told that his breaks from London aren’t a vacation at all because he’s so much in his day job is involved.

But while the Tory Party was enjoying its dig with the Whitehall bureaucrats, I know the Permanent Secretaries let loose on Cabinet Secretary Simon Case over Dowden’s personal attack on their colleague Healey.

Not only were her remarks taken out of context (she actually spoke of the time freed from commuting, not less hard work in the day), but in general, the department staff showed no productivity loss throughout the pandemic. A mix of home and office work had indicated a more efficient future.

In fact, the backlash has been so severe that it now appears that there is an embarrassing gap between the rhetoric of the Tory Conference and the day-to-day reality of a modern civil service.

Just today, the Prime Minister’s spokesman admitted that there were “no plans for any goals” or quotas for the expected number of employees in the office. Case appears to have learned from last summer setting an 80 percent target in office only to see it collapse when the Covid-19 wave turned into a tsunami in the fall.

There is, however, a bigger problem with the ministers’ insistence on a new form of “presenterism” in offices, and that is: To cut costs, their own government has spearheaded efforts to reduce the number of desks in Whitehall. In some departments, like the Cabinet Office, there are literally only three desks per 10 employees, so employees are expected to work remotely.

And there is also a hint of political hypocrisy. In line with the Prime Minister’s “leveling” agenda, the government’s strategy for public sector growth moved public sector jobs out of London, and around 40 percent of those jobs were expected to be home. New “hubs” in regional cities and municipalities also embed the low desk ratio with a lot of “hot desking”.

Just last month, ministers announced that the new HMRC office center in Leeds would now house six more departments. Why? Because HMRC, the largest resident, was doing more hybrid and home work than planned.

Dave Penman, head of the First Division Association, tells me ministers should celebrate the flexible labor revolution that is saving taxpayers money, helping staff organize childcare and revitalizing areas outside London.

“Instead, they destroy the morale of their employees for cheap headlines that seem only designed to play well with certain demographics of the electorate,” he says. He has a point.

Even Rishi Sunak, speaking of the benefits of face-to-face meetings for creative collaboration, spoke last year about “interesting” new American models of serviced offices in local neighborhoods that meant those who didn’t want long drives were “hot- desk “closer to home.

Several UK councils are trying to turn empty department stores into such local office space.

Crucially, working from home and more local work should mean an economic shot in the arm for all those cities that felt neglected and voted for Brexit. Rather than being viewed as “dormitories” for their nearby major cities, workers can spend their day and money in the local economy.

Similarly, the government has seen an opportunity to address the catastrophic housing shortage by adopting planning reforms to facilitate the conversion of empty retail stores into apartments.

Aside from louder planning disputes, the government quietly issued a “High Street Homes Permitted Building Law” on August 1st in order to turn the policy into reality. Working from home raises the prospect that there will be not only more homes but also more workers on the main streets.

For businesses looking to make big savings by lowering office rental costs and for workers who hate their commute, the pandemic has simply accelerated an underlying trend. Labor pushed ahead with their right to flexible working this summer precisely because many working parents have seen at least some benefits of the Covid-19 restrictions.

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