WTF Prime Minister! Working From Home works

A woman sits at a desk in front of her computer. The desk has an office in-tray, but there are personal touches such as the picture on the wall in front of her, bookcases and a floor reading light to indicate she is not in an office, but working from home.
Working from home. Picture credit: Victoria Heath / Creative Commons. See also Creative Commons’ tips for individuals and employers on home working

Boris Johnson has some very peculiar notions, as I’m sure many readers will agree. Such as his almost cavalier approach to parenting, his distant relationship to the truth and now… his opinions about working from home. He recently doubled down on his government’s ‘get back to your desks’ approach to work. And I quote: 

“My experience of working from home is you spend an awful lot of time making another cup of coffee and then, you know, getting up, walking very slowly to the fridge, hacking off a small piece of cheese, then walking very slowly back to your laptop and then forgetting what it was you’re doing.”

Really? 

Working From Home (WFH) was a novel idea when I was first offered the opportunity some 14 years ago. It was weird at first, getting up and walking, well, just a few feet to my ‘office’. There was little slow walking to the fridge: but then I was too busy: from the start, I was determined to prove I could be just as productive, wherever I was sitting.

Johnson is describing the life of a writer, a freelance journalist, in which inspiration can be elusive and come in fits and starts. It doesn’t really apply to the civil servant answering calls from the public, or creating a database for her bosses.

Being organised at home

As a business journalist in charge of covering a sector for my company’s clients, my day involved a myriad of tasks, from emailing and phoning contacts, to teasing stories out of data and other online sources, creating infographics, and so on. I developed a system of dividing my day into time slots … such as 9 to 11, 11 to 2, 2 to 5 to devote to one or more of these tasks. I enjoyed the autonomy it gave me. And I enjoyed the occasional trip into the ‘office’ too, as a sociable break from routine.

Before long my experiment became something of the norm as more of my colleagues were allowed to work from home following an office relocation. For many, the idea of commuting every day to London was not something they had signed up for; and the company was keen to keep them on board.

There were never any complaints about my work rate and as far as I know, no issues about any of my colleagues either. I was at my most productive when I worked from home. And I feel that even today, now I’m retired, the experience has enriched me.

Why not build back better?

My Bylines colleague Mo Kanjilal notes that before Covid, only 42 per cent of people were happy at work,  and that for many parents sourcing wrap-around childcare is an issue. “No one is saying that offices should no longer exist at all,” she says, “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?” 

Mo has her own theories about why the government is so keen to drive people back to the office. I believe bosses are partly to blame: too silent about the benefits to their companies from employees working from home. More than a third of working adults in Great Britain spent at least part of their time working from home this spring, according to an ONS survey.

Much of what Johnson and his ministers say is based on their own experiences and prejudices. Actual research by The Work Foundation, published in November last year, reveals a more nuanced picture. There were downsides for employees, it reports, such as a feeling of always being on call, and of isolation. What emerged was a lot of support for a mix of office and home – what it calls ‘hybrid working’.

Flexible working is here to stay

The government has, in a sense, opened a pandora’s box on the subject. Encouraging home working (for those who can) during the pandemic has accelerated existing trends, among them job-sharing, flexitime and compressed hours. The Foundation says that three in five managers surveyed (57%) say their organisation is widening access to forms of flexible work.

Based on its research, the body has made a number of recommendations to government… which senior ministers, including Johnson, paid not the slightest attention to. All that walking slowly back and forth to the fridge does not seem to have focused the prime minister’s mind at all.

And to cap it all, the attempts by Jacob Rees-Mogg, minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency, to get civil servants back to the office (personally placing ‘sorry you were out when I called’ Post-it notes on desks) has backfired spectacularly…

What do you think?

We’d love to hear your personal experiences. Perhaps you were even refused the opportunity to WFH? Email us at letters@sussexbylines.co.uk

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