Why we’re not going back to the office

This article was originally published on 14 September 2020, but has been updated in the wake of Rishi Sunak’s recent push for workers to return to the office, despite the ongoing Covid situation and the fact that working from home has proven beneficial for many (both employers and employees alike), especially women and minority groups. Now writer Mo Kanjilal ponders what the real reason behind the government’s urgent attempts to force people back to the office might be…

A man and woman in masks work on their computers in an office
Photo by Maxime on Unsplash / Maxime Arcari at: www.utopix.com

Government ministers are falling over themselves to tell people to ‘get back to work’ and ‘get back to the office’. The trouble is, in doing so, they are showing how out of touch they are with the many people who have been working from home since March 2020. Rishi Sunak has been the latest Minister to say that people need to get back to the office to further their careers. And the civil service may have their pay cut if they resist returning to the office full time. For those people who have been working from home all the way through, it has been a new experience for many, and has allowed people to discover a different way of life.

The point is that office life, commuting life and the culture around it was not working for so many people. It’s a tradition that’s old-fashioned, rigid and built around a world we no longer live in. ‘The office’ was created for men who had wives at home, who worked Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, with no need to worry about childcare. It’s built around a culture from decades ago with bowler hats and pinstripe suits, and it has been an unhappy existence for so many people with many workplaces slow to adapt to changes in their workforce. Callum Adamson, a CEO and founder said that the Chancellor was simply “out of touch with what younger generations want and need.

Happy Office Workers?

Dettol launched an advert on the London Underground to encourage everyone back to the office, which went viral last year for all the wrong reasons and neatly sums up the outdated culture of the office.

I wonder who thought it was a good idea to suggest going back to the office is about the boss’s jokes, office gossip and hearing buzzwords, as if these are good things we’re all missing?

The Green Party fixed it for them by showing how we should see this as an opportunity for change and a better future instead of going straight back to the way things were:

I know which version I prefer. The four-day week is something now under serious discussion, for example.

Before Covid, only 42 per cent of people were happy at work.  For many parents, with school hours shorter than a working day, and wrap-around childcare not always easily available, it was a juggling act many were finding difficult. One in three flexible working requests were refused. But as soon as we went into lockdown, those same workplaces suddenly found they could accommodate flexible working and create working from home policies.

A pre-Covid open office with nobody wearing masks
Photo credit: Photo by Arlington Research on Unsplash

Then there’s office culture, where life is not always inclusive. Without intending to, Dettol summed up why I don’t want to go back to the office. No thanks, I’m perfectly happy without ‘proper bants’. I used to work in an office where ‘proper bants’ meant inappropriate jokes, and we openly discussed crying in the toilets after being treated badly. Then there’s the time wasted in offices on things like desk decorating competitions, tea rounds, signing birthday cards for people you barely know, and meetings about meetings about meetings.

For many, working at home is far more productive, creates far more freedom for ideas to develop and makes people feel like they can get on with their work in peace. It allows people the freedom to get their work done when they can, and it makes work about the output instead of the presenteeism of sitting at your desk for a certain number of hours every day.

Moving out

There are clearly some people who do miss the office culture and who are looking forward to getting back to their office. No one is saying that offices should no longer exist at all. Surely the point is that this is a chance to build back to something different and better, and to reimagine work so that it works for everyone? The fact that so many people are considering moving away from cities suggests that there is an appetite for change.

Many companies are reviewing all of this, with office leases not being renewed, flexible working policies being put in place and employees being given the option to continue to work from home. In late April, the CEO of Barclays announced that “putting 7000 people in a building may be a thing of the past”. Exactly.

Office motivations

It’s obvious that this is a time to re-think and reimagine how we do things, so why is the government insisting that we have to get back to the office? They know there’s still a virus lurking, and so many employees have discovered new ways of working. A huge number of people report being more productive. And remote working has given people new choices about who to work for and how to work. Many people with disabilities have found that more roles being open to remote working means they can now consider applying for roles which would have been beyond their reach before.

Could it be that the real reason for pushing the return to the office narrative is that it’s actually about cabinet ministers’ mates who own properties, who rely on workers being in the cities, and who donate to the Conservative party? New research showed the Conservatives are receiving donations worth £17,500 a day from businesses in the sector. Well, aiding the property investments of Conservative party donors is definitely not a good enough reason for me to go rushing back to the office. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

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