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26 March 2021

Why Rishi Sunak’s defence of the office doesn’t stack up

The Chancellor is right that there are advantages to a level of in-person working. But if he cares so much, why has he done so little to encourage it?

By Stephen Bush

Workers will “vote with their feet” if they can’t return to offices, Rishi Sunak has warned in an interview with the Telegraph’s Lucy Fisher, in which he defended office-working as helping to enable “meetings that happen by chance”, “people riffing off each other” and so on.

My unpopular opinion is that the Chancellor has a point: there are advantages to a degree of in-person working that can’t be replicated remotely, particularly if you work in a collaborative or creative industry. The consequences of the end of office-working will, I am convinced, be particularly ruinous in the long term for new starters, people without social connections and those born outside of big cities.  

Look at the detail behind many big firms’ plans for “flexible” working and what they actually spell is “inflexible” working. If you have the right to a desk, that right can be meaningfully exercised, and you have flexible working. If staff vastly outnumber desks and you are, in practice, forced to work from home most days of the week, then you have inflexible working. 

[see also: The Covid reset]

Across large parts of the economy, we are in danger of moving from one paradigm in which you’re forced to work in an office even when it is unnecessary, to one in which you are forced to work from home even when it is undesirable.

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The question is if Sunak cares about office-working so much, why didn’t he do anything in the Budget to encourage it? The biggest threat to the future of office-working are the big savings that employers can make by divesting themselves of their offices and shrinking the size of their office estates. Yet there was nothing in his Budget to change the thinking of an office-closing CFO. 

If you want to save offices, then you need to increase the power and ability of all workers, not just the lucky few who are able to move jobs at will, to lobby for the right to a desk and to genuine flexible working. You could, for example, allow union access to all workplaces, and electronic balloting by trades unions. 

Or you can decide that you want to maintain our current labour market arrangements – but the consequence of that, inevitably, will be the closure of offices and the shifting of many of the costs of working life from businesses to households. 

[see also: Does the end of lockdown mean a return to normal office life?]