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 for the last six months, with nine out of ten saying they would like to continue to work from home in some form. For those people who have been working all the way through, working from home all the time might have been a new experience, and allowed them 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.
Happy Office Workers?
Dettol launched an advert on the London Underground to encourage everyone back to the office, which went viral for all the wrong reasons and neatly sums up the outdated culture of the office: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 lockdown, 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 at home policies.
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.
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.
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 inadequate testing facilities. They tell us we have to get back to work to save the economy, then announce that we now can’t socialise with more than six people. Of course, we can sit on trains and in offices with them. Is the real reason, that it’s actually about their mates who own properties, who rely on workers being in the cities, and who donate to the Conservative party? Well, property investments of Conservative party donors are not a good enough reason for me and many others to rush back to the office.
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