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21 November 2022

Why the Conservatives will lose their war on working from home

People don’t like being told they’re lazy, and remote working boosts productivity. The Tories could easily claim responsibility.

By Emma Haslett

Elon Musk has banned remote work at Twitter because “the road ahead… will require intense work” and the social media platform’s previous “work from home forever” policy will not, he implied, encourage the kind of nose-to-the-grindstone, blood-sweat-and-tears graft needed to restore the glory of his $44bn purchase. 

It’s a stance Jacob Rees-Mogg, formerly minister for government efficiency, would approve of; the then leader of the Commons walked the halls of various government departments, leaving mean little notes for the civil servants whose desks were empty. “Sorry you were out when I visited,” they oozed. “I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.”

Polling suggests this strategy won’t win any votes, however. A study by King’s College London has found that 66 per cent of 2,030 respondents from London believe it is either somewhat or completely unacceptable for politicians to tell them to stop working from home, and 80 per cent believe it is unacceptable for politicians to claim those working remotely are working are less hard.

What’s interesting about this study is the views of those who voted Conservative in 2019: 66 per cent did not like the “lazy home workers” narrative trumpeted by the likes of Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, and just 33 per cent thought it was alright for politicians to tell them to get back to the office. 

The support for full-time office working comes mostly from the top. KPMG has reported that 65 per cent of chief executives want their employees back in the office by 2025. Occupancy rates in UK offices are still only about half what they were before Covid, however, according to the real estate consultancy Remit Consulting, and almost three years after the start of the pandemic many businesses are grudgingly accepting that working from home is here to stay, and shrinking the amount of office space they occupy in response. Meta, the owner of Facebook, is one such business: in October it said it would spend $3bn to “align our office facilities footprint with our anticipated operating needs” – on top of the $413m it spent last quarter to ditch leases, including its massive 200,000 sq ft office on Park Avenue in New York. 

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Property developers are abandoning plans to build new offices as a result. About 20 million sq ft of office space disappeared in the year to the end of March, according to figures published by the law firm Boodle Hatfield this week, the biggest drop since it started collecting the data in 2001. In an economy in which construction forms just over 6 per cent of GDP, such a fall doesn’t bode brilliantly for growth.

However, the Conservatives should take note: like it or not, the shift to “WFH” is one of the biggest collective changes to habits to have taken place during the 12 years the party has been in power. It’s the kind of behavioural transformation David Cameron’s nudge unit, created to gently influence people into better habits, could only have dreamed of.

It’s also a good example of the efficient markets that Conservative governments claim to revere, because it can help companies to boost productivity and increases the pool of workers they can hire from. The party’s voters are the same people who benefit the most from this shift, because they are more likely to have the resources to work comfortably from home and the kinds of white-collar jobs in which it’s now commonplace.

Rather than trying to squeeze the WFH genie back into the bottle, the Tories could be chalking up the shift to remote working as a win, reminding their voters that they’re avoiding arduous commutes, getting exercise and they are able to pick up their kids from school. The national rise in Labradoodle ownership could easily be made a Conservative property. “You haven’t been squashed onto a Tube train at rush hour since 2019, and it’s been on our watch,” they could say. “Vote Conservative!”

They needn’t worry about getting in trouble with their employers: the King’s College survey also indicated that the majority of people – almost 60 per cent – believe it is perfectly acceptable for politicians themselves to work from home for “at least part of the week”. Under that scenario, MPs who are working parents would get to spend more time with their children, giving Rees-Mogg – a man given to catching 40 winks when he can – more space to stretch out on the Commons benches.

[See also: The Grey Recession]

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