Across the country, many of us are setting our alarms an hour earlier again, coughing up £5-£10 a day on train fare and splurging the same again on sandwiches as we rush back to the grind to be in the office again. Some bosses have taken the hybrid approach (demanding workers are in on certain days of the week) while others are back in full time. Flexible working revolution… now what was that again?
Boris Johnson will reportedly use his party conference speech today to urge workers to go back to the office. A government source told the Daily Mail that he ‘believes very strongly in the value of face-to-face working’, particularly for younger employees. Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden has told civil servants to 'get off their Pelotons and get back to the office' and Johnson said staff who continue to work from home will be 'gossiped about'.
They're not the only politicians to try and coax workers back in. Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said recently Britain will ‘go down the plughole’ without a major push to get staff back in offices. Others have been equally cynical and scaremongering.
Those pushing the office as the only viable way to work are totally out of step with the reality of many people's lives and preferences.
Duncan-Smith claims office working is good for productivity and employees’ mental health, but it's hard to believe that’s what he really cares about. Anyway, home-working has been proven to benefit wellbeing. Those pushing the office as the only viable way to work are totally out of step with the reality of many people's lives and preferences. Working from home at least part of the time has proven itself to be a really good alternative model, especially for those with mental health issues, disabilities and caring responsibilities, but also for anyone who wants a healthy work-life balance and doesn’t want to spend half their week and salary commuting.
Bosses also seem to be obsessed with the idea of having everyone back in where they can see them, spouting buzzwords like ‘collaboration’ and ‘creativity.’ But numerous studies show we’re more productive at home. A study by internet provider Talk Talk found more than half of workers (58%) have reported that they have been more productive while WFH.
Politicians should think carefully about why they’re really pushing this idea. Probably because they think it will boost the economy to get us eating Pret again – but then what about the local highstreets that will collapse if they’re abandoned again?
It makes you wonder, is it really that certain leaders need to surround themselves with their minions to feel powerful again? A CEO might not feel as much of a Big Dog in his (and let’s be honest, it’s probably a man) dressing gown at home, but that doesn’t mean his employees should shlep back to the office to massage his fragile ego.
The (mostly) successful transition to remote working during the pandemic proved we can be trusted to work flexibly, where we’re more able to choose hours that fit around our lives. If we’re now being encouraged to go back in, we should be asking for evidence that it’s beneficial for companies and individuals before automatically slipping back to ‘before times’.
For working parents like Clare, 36, a marketing executive, working from home has been a godsend. It's finally enabled her to juggle parenting and work without feeling close to a breakdown.
‘Instead of spending two hours commuting each day, I was able to spend more time both working and being with my children. When I go to the office, I don't even see them until they're about to go to bed. I don't feel I can return to the way things were now I've seen how much better it can be.’
This push to get the workforce back in is all happening amid news of vaccines wearing off in the next few months, while booster jabs aren’t currently planned for the general workforce. We know what happened last time the government encouraged an unprotected population out onto the streets again. Hello lockdown 95.
Once in the office, many of us are still Zooming colleagues or clients anyway, as some people have moved away and can’t meet in person anymore. So it’s not like going back in the office magically takes us back to some imagined 'good old days'.
I’m not saying every office should be boarded up and turned into flats or shopping centres. The office undoubtedly still has a place in the post-pandemic world, and for many starting out in their careers it may be a lifeline after months as a lonely graduate sitting at home.
But to guilt-trip every worker into going back in, when it can be inconvenient at best and breakdown-inducing at worst, is unnecessary. Let’s not regress back to a less empathetic time. The gift of choice shouldn’t be taken away now. Flexible working has to be the pandemic’s silver lining.