The prime minister’s comments – delivered in response to calls for a national bank holiday celebrating the end of lockdown – have, understandably, caused frustration, as they seemingly imply that months of working from home are akin to… well, months of idleness.
“The general view is people have had quite a few days off, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing for people to see their way round to making a passing stab at getting back into the office,” joked Johnson during the virtual Conservative spring forum.
Johnson’s tone-deaf comments have sparked criticism – not just from outraged workers across the country, but also from shadow employment minister Andy McDonald.
He told The Observer: “[Johnson] is trying to appease the libertarian wing of his party on the one hand by talking about getting back to the office, then suggesting he is being cautious.
“He just throws out comments like this. You can’t ride two horses at once. It is not leadership, it is simply cavalier.”
McDonald added: “A right to seek flexible and remote working should be matched by a duty on employers to grant such a request so far as is reasonable.”
It is worth noting that this isn’t the first time that the government has come under fire for its attitude towards flexible and remote working schemes. Indeed, just last August, an unnamed government source told The Telegraph that workers need to be “alert” and that it could be “problematic” if bosses “are only seeing workers once a fortnight”.
“Suddenly the word ‘restructure’ is bandied about and people who have been working from home find themselves in the most vulnerable position,” the source added.
Or, to put it more bluntly, “go back to work or risk losing your job.”
Later that month, in a bid to explain the government’s position to Sky News, transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “What we’re saying to people is it is now safe to go back [to the office].
“Your employer should have made arrangements which are appropriate to make sure it is coronavirus-safe to work.”
And this, of course, is all well and good: workers’ safety should and must be considered.
The thing we object to, though, is the phrase “go back to work.”
Because, as anyone who has been WFH will no doubt attest, we’ve been working really bloody hard – and in very stressful conditions – for months.
As previously reported by Stylist, the reality of WFH during a global pandemic is very different to what some might imagine. Indeed, many of us have been piling enormous pressure upon ourselves to do better. To work faster, longer, harder than ever before. To come up with ideas and solutions in silo. To push past feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty brought on by Covid-19. To pull together in these unprecedented times.
And, above all else, to prove to our managers, miles away and busily focused on their own duties, that we are 100% engaged and ready for anything.
Despite this, too many people – including controversial columnist Richard Littlejohn – have heaped scorn on those who are “boasting smugly about their exciting new ‘work/life’ balance and the amount of money they are saving on their railway season tickets.”
Right. Because it’s apparently now a character flaw to even entertain the possibility that a two-hour morning commute isn’t all that beneficial to our bank accounts and emotional wellbeing then, is it?
Of course, I understand why people are trying to drive workers out of their homes and into offices, even if they’re going about it in the worst possible way. Figures compiled for Sky News in 2020, after all, revealed that worker footfall in Britain’s cities was just 17% of pre-lockdown levels in the first two weeks of August.
And Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, previously warned that the office workers are vital drivers of the UK economy, supporting “thousands of local firms, from dry cleaners to sandwich bars.”
That being said, though, perhaps it’s time to consider another way forward. Because, despite six out of 10 bosses in the country agreeing that cutting hours would benefit their business, the average (pre-Covid) working week for Brits remains sat at 43.6 hours, or 8 hours and 40 minutes per day – which isn’t great news, considering that longer working hours have been linked with an increased risk of strokes, heart disease, and obesity (not to mention increased risk of mental health problems brought about by associated stress).
Throw in the fact that Sweden’s introduction of a six-hour working day boosted productivity, lowered turnover rates, reduced sick leave, and boosted the emotional wellbeing of employees, and it becomes clearer than ever that something needs to give.
And that ‘something’ is the outdated idea that work can only take place in an office. That workers need to be watched constantly lest they “start dossing”. That the ongoing recession can apparently be blamed on those who are WFH.
It’s disrespectful, quite frankly. And it needs to stop.
If anything positive has come out of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s this: employers know now that they can 100% trust employees to get the job done. And, better still, we can trust them to get it done without having them trek into the office, rinse their bank accounts on overpriced trains and sarnies, and lose hours of their non-working day to their commutes.
With that in mind, then, let’s use this learning to do away with toxic presenteeism and transform workplace culture for the better.