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Empty Benches, Empty Desks: Why We Should Return to the Office, Sometimes

Empty Benches, Empty Desks: Why We Should Return to the Office, Sometimes

Paul Bickley reflects on recent calls for civil servants to stop working from home. 05/05/2022.

Go to any pub – or café, or church–hall, or whatever – in the country and ask them whether they think Parliamentarians are hard working. Snorts of derision! Have you looked at the House of Commons? It’s always empty. What is it that they do all day? No doubt they’re enjoying their subsidised alcohol in plush bars. Or working handsomely paid second jobs, maybe from overseas. Or watching porn… no, hold on… that guy actually was in the House of Commons (at least he was multi–tasking).  

Of course, that is something of a caricature. While some members of Parliament seem nobly dedicated to the cause of justifying public cynicism, many more do their work conscientiously, perhaps even sacrificially. Only a small proportion of an MP’s job consists in sitting in debates in the main chamber. If they are not in the House of Commons, they might be in a Select Committee, contributing to a Westminster Hall debate, meeting or corresponding with constituents, or working with MPs of other parties on issues of significant public interest in All Party Parliamentary Group meetings. Just because we can’t see what they’re doing, doesn’t mean they’re not doing anything. Great British Public, please consider that your legislators might not all be out to rip you off. 

On behalf of Her Majesty’s Civil Service, we could make a similar plea to Jacob Rees–Mogg, Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency. He has asked departments of state to encourage their people back into the office. He shared a picture of the Cabinet Office, which seemed largely empty. “It looked as if the office hadn’t been used in two years. Thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being spent, and either they need to be there or not. If not, we should put somebody in this property.” He then left a passive aggressive note, to the chagrin of civil service unions: “Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.” 

The implication, unspoken on this occasion but made very explicitly in much conservative commentary on the public sector, is that civil servants are using ongoing work from home (WFH) flexibility to indulge in their longstanding tendency to laziness. If we/ministers cannot see what civil servants are doing, they are probably doing nothing. This intervention coincides with a moment when other employers are discouraging working from home, hoping to put employees back in their suits and office chairs. One law firm has said it will allow staff to WFH full time, if they’re willing to take 20% less pay.   

It may well be that working from home has contributed to some of the well–publicised problems in various government departments. That’s no reason to buy into a narrative that those on the public payroll are skivers, any more than the absence of MPs from the House of Commons is a reason to believe that they’re all lazy good–for–nothings (scores on are MPs lazy/hard working currently running at 43% v 29%). The note said, “Sorry you were out”, but the message was, “we don’t trust you” (or anyone else who wants to make more sense of their life by spending at least some time WFH).  

A more winsome and balanced appeal could have been made. The pandemic created a tectonic shift in working patterns, not all of which were positive – but employers do report that hybrid and home working can enhance productivity. A thoughtful approach would take the best of the working from home changes, and combine them with opportunities for face–to–face collaboration which, all things being equal, are still far better in person. That’s what most sensible employers are trying to do. A thoughtless approach forces workers back into the office to merely to sit on Zoom calls with colleagues.  

There is, however, a more compelling and worker–centred reason to return to the office. The pandemic saw us compromise our home spaces and private life. The disciplines of capitalism barged into our bedrooms and onto our kitchen tables. As we argue in our recent report, Just Work: Humanising the Labour Market in a Changing World, the boundaries between work and other goods (leisure, education, rest) had already been much dissolved by technology before we ever heard of Covid–19. The pandemic amplified and sped up this process. For the white–collar workforce, this means that there is no place and no time where we cannot be at work. For every skiver, I’d bet there are many more working over their contracted hours, picking up emails in the evenings, or squeezing in extra hours in order to ‘get stuff done’.   

I don’t presume that my experience is representative, but any low productivity was not the result of general dossing about, but from long days staring at the screen with little human interaction, beset by brain fog brought on from the constant distraction of pings from email, messenger services, and social media. It is not good for workers to be alone, and it’s not good that we can fall out of bed (or even stay in bed) and ‘be at the desk’ at the same time. Just another hour or so, and then another, none of them particularly productive.   

The best reason to be in the office? So you can go home at the end of the day.


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 Photo by Marc Mueller from Pexels

Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Research Fellow at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity.

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Posted 5 May 2022

Coronavirus, Society, Work, Work from home

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