THE desertion of the office continues. There is no public health reason for it, and never was. Still, at first glance it’s a win-win. For employees, it can lessen or even eliminate the cost of childcare and commuting. For employers, overheads and sickness absence can be reduced, productivity (apparently) increased. Moreover, unlike other Covid measures we could all name, home-working is essentially voluntary and causes no physical injury. Whatever the perks, desk-bound staff have voted with their slippers. Hence the routine promotion of ‘remote’ or ‘hybrid’ working in today’s job adverts. All in all, what’s not to like?
Plenty, as it happens. The fabric of society is being torn in subtle ways, and this particular damage may not be repairable. We’re learning the hard way (though most in this parish knew it full well) that the economy can’t simply be switched off and on without profound repercussions. The abandonment of the office is one of them. There’s been a silent coup. Emboldened by two-and-a-half years of hysterical media and government over-reaction, a sizeable chunk of the workforce – especially the public sector – are milking Covid for an easier life. Senior managers, their hands on the same udder, turn a blind eye. Like much of the pandemic fiasco, this was depressingly predictable. The ‘experts’ confect and perpetuate a crisis and surprise, surprise, large swathes of Joe Public won’t let some aspects of it go.
Critics of this workplace shift make sound arguments. Jacob Rees-Mogg, irked by legions of Sir Humphreys exchanging pinstripe suit for dressing-gown, has cited value for money for taxpayer-funded buildings. Well, yes, Minister. But it goes far beyond that. For one thing, the alleged productivity boost is dubious (clue: the unions trumpet it). Have you attempted to telephone a government department helpline lately? It soon becomes clear that the callow-sounding, under-trained adviser is at home. Unable to assist beyond basic inquiries, he has no means of transferring you to a more experienced colleague, assuming such a person still exists. You end up advising him.
Doubtless others manage it better, but I’m less industrious working from home. It isn’t so much the domestic distractions: I’m not a fridge-raider, and the cat leaves me in peace most of the time. Nor is it a dearth of supporting equipment – a laptop is all that’s necessary. But to attach my professional head securely I need the physical environment of the workplace, plus the corresponding sartorial getup. Perhaps it’s psychological: I eschew blurring the distinction between home and office. Fundamentally they are, and should remain, different worlds. There’s something healthy about closing the front door behind you and going to work.
There are drawbacks. Office politics bores me rigid. Ditto the near-constant flow of woke pronouncements from HR. Yet the good still outweighs the bad. Most importantly, there’s often (though not always) a sense of camaraderie. Sharing not just the same employer but office space fosters a togetherness which Zoom can’t replicate.
It’s something of a cliché, but chatting spontaneously with – bouncing ideas off – colleagues in the corridor or canteen really does grease the wheels of staff relations. How many millions of these exchanges have been lost since the office exodus began? And to what extent has this blunted the communication skills of workers? Obvious to say, but you can’t network as effectively sitting at home. Nor, for that matter, can you kindle an office romance – no minor thing when that’s where up to a third of all relationships start.
Post-pandemic, there’s a palpable sense of disengagement – even indolence – abroad. The office-turned-kitchen-table worker is a symbol and symptom of this. Goodness knows the Covid response was disastrous enough already. The last thing we needed to adopt, seemingly for the long run, was a more atomised way of working. Granted, the office, full of pen-pushers like me, was never remotely as instrumental as the shop floor or shipyard in making this country a commercial powerhouse. Yet in its own modest way it too reflected the Protestant work ethic. And in bringing people together under one roof, it nourished a social cohesion which is fast slipping through our fingers.