Have people working remotely for the past year “had quite a few days off”? Is it time for them to “see their way round to making a passing stab at getting back into the office”? That was Boris Johnson’s assertion on 27 March, when asked about the prospects of a new post-pandemic bank holiday.
Johnson’s comments are characteristically tactless. Just like his gaffe (quickly rescinded) last week, when he said the UK’s successful vaccine rollout was the result of “greed”, or November’s assessment that Scottish devolution had been a “disaster”, the Prime Minister’s off-the-cuff remarks often give the impression that his mouth is operating independently of his brain.
For a start, Johnson should know that working from home is the official advice from his own government (although it is not mandated), which is not expected to change in the coming weeks even as the lockdown is relaxed. Passing judgement about the working ethos of people who have been doing exactly what the government has been telling them to do is both counter-intuitive and bizarre.
Moreover, if Johnson has done any research on the topic at all he should know that working remotely by no means constitutes “days off”. According to one recent study, the average length of a working day has increased by two hours since the start of the pandemic, with remote workers staying logged on until 8pm. Far from shirking their responsibilities, workers report increased demands from their employers since the shift away from the office, with shorter lunch breaks, longer hours and more pressure to be responsive regardless of the time of day. If the Prime Minister can’t imagine working productively outside an office, that says more about him than it does about remote working. (In 2012, ahead of the London Olympics, he said of working from home: “We all know that is basically sitting wondering whether to go down to the fridge to hack off that bit of cheese before checking your emails again.”)
It is possible that Johnson’s remark on Saturday referred not to home workers but to the 4.7 million people currently on the furlough scheme. But those furloughed workers are most likely to be from sectors that have been completely shut down by Covid restrictions – hospitality, retail, travel, the arts – which are not what is usually meant by “office” jobs, and whose reopening is dependent on the government’s unlocking roadmap. Besides, workers have little choice about whether or not they are furloughed – many would surely rather work than take a pay cut (furloughed staff receive 80 per cent of their wages up to £2,500 a month) but are not given the option.
This issue of “choice” is paramount for non-furloughed workers too. There are plenty of employees (particularly young people in shared housing whose living conditions do not allow for comfortable and productive homeworking) who are desperate to get back to the office. But the decision is not up to them. Having discovered how successful remote working can be, more and more employers are considering making the shift permanent, closing expensive office real estate and passing the costs of working (equipment, internet connection, space) on to employees for good.
It is not clear how workers from these companies are meant to “make a passing stab at getting back into the office”, as Johnson suggested, without the support of their employers. But then, he has form here. At the start of the most recent lockdown, the government ran a shockingly aggressive publicity campaign, depicting Covid patients on ventilators that shamed people for their supposedly rule-breaking choices. One poster read: “Look him in the eyes and tell him you really can’t work from home.” The fact the government had placed no obligation on employers to offer staff the option of homeworking was ignored. So was the lack of financial support provided for workers overlooked by various Treasury schemes, for whom the choice has been to keep working during the pandemic or risk destitution. Instead, blame for the political failures that led to the UK’s severe second Covid wave was placed on individuals.
And so it is with Johnson’s latest comments about the return to the office. They may be thoughtless, but they still reveal something about the way he sees the world. For the Prime Minister, other people’s suboptimal behaviour – whether it’s going into the office when lockdown applies or refusing to when it doesn’t – can always be treated as a matter of personal irresponsibility, to be corrected with coercion or public shaming. That’s much easier than considering the structural and societal issues that might prompt people to make such choices – issues the government could help fix if it tried.
Over the past year we’ve grown used to the Prime Minister’s propensity for cutting corners. Maybe it’s time for him to take a day off from blaming the public for his own errors, and actually get to work.