The unbearable pointlessness of politicising working from home

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

As the London commercial property market reaches a level of activity not witnessed since Covid began, so too does the temperature under the collar of the political establishment about working somewhere other than all this booming commercial property.

Whether it’s the PM exposing his own disinterest when faced with the temptations of a fridge stocked by his overworked catering staff, or a celebration of the carriage clock in lieu of a PC on the contrived desk of the ironically titled Minister for Brexit Opportunities, there’s a distinctly archaic whiff about the arguments for attending the office from the government benches. Not a mention of collaboration, innovation, collegiality, camaraderie — even though primarily anecdotal, the usual arguments for being present — no, it’s all about control. Self and organisational. Self because we’re fundamentally weak-willed and unengaged. Organisational because being weak-willed and unengaged, we need watching every minute of the day.

Given that the roots of the government’s huge parliamentary majority originally stemmed from a fight, in this case with the EU, it’s continued to believe that brawling is more effective than policy or strategy. It’s no surprise to find that home workers would be on the list eventually, as the hints splashed across its shill rags had been in evidence for some time. Yet the windmilling in appears, as with many of its scraps, to be aimless.

Why attack working from home? It’s not a polar debate, despite the provocative attempts to make it so. There are still few organisations who have abandoned their corporate premises entirely, preferring instead to implement a more experimental hybrid approach, offering free choice of attendance as required. Treating people like adults rather than cheese-obsessed deviants. We have the technology to make this feasible and entirely workable. It requires a property response as the understanding of what’s required to support it emerges, and no doubt one that will increase transactional volumes in the market. As we’re starting to see.

Who are the targets? It’s helpful when picking a fight to know who you’re picking it with, and that it’s actually a ‘who’. Punching fresh air is, after all, potentially sectionable. The real target seems to be the civil service that sustains government, who have proven to be as least as effective working from home then being cooped up in budget accommodation. The attack on WFH has morphed into the threat of a mass cull of staff, presumably based on the notion that as there’s no policy or strategy to implement less people are needed. But realistically it’s everyone who may not show up in the office for five days a week, which means a substantial majority of the 40% of the working population who are ‘office based’. That’s a big fight to pick when there’s no chance of a legislative right hook to close it out. Which is, in itself, quite possibly part of the plan.

Strangely, however, the targets also include their own supporters. The government’s supposed policy mainstay, ‘levelling up’, which most would agree would be a good idea if there were any actual substance to it, is served by hybrid working. It can bring the possibility of progressive, well paid work to communities that otherwise may remain socially and economically marooned. If a shred of thought had been given to it, hybrid working would be a simple to deliver pillar of the strategy, made easy by most people to whom it would apply wanting it. It’s a driver of equality that doesn’t entail any government spending at all, just a cessation of the attacks upon it. If it weren’t for those with a financial stake in commercial property. Which is actually in surprisingly good health with hybrid working.

The fear is that over time, the industry will be left holding a stock of poor quality, unsustainable and undesirable office stock for which there will be no takers, not even for those searching for bargains. That’s simply a market adjusting to circumstances. There are clear signals for its owners that it’s time to identify this stock and do something about it. It’s not like it will come as a surprise.

Where does it lead? Well, to a heck of a lot of social media protest. And we know where that gets us. Which is nowhere. The bubble just bubbles. I’m adding to it here. But in reality, the back-to-the-office demand is all just guff, another distraction from what’s really going on: like the erosion of democracy, the cost of living crisis, the impact of Brexit and looming recession. All of which are far more serious than whether we work at home or in an office.

Yet as we’ve hopefully established in the last two years, where we work isn’t a binary debate, despite attempts such as those of late to make it so. There are very real opportunities from hybrid working we need to understand and optimise, and very real risks we need to acknowledge and mitigate. The changing economic climate will no doubt play into both our attitudes and practices. What we do know for sure is that the carriage clock on the mahogany desk stopped a long time ago. Our best response is to ignore the politicisation of working from home and to continue to put our energies into creating a better world of work. The disgruntled will still be in the corner of the playground, huffing, puffing and swiping at fresh air, as the world moves on. Leave them to it.

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Neil Usher

work & workplace protagonist | #ElementalWorkplace and #ElementalChange originator | rumoured to create human environments | known to blog