Support 100 years of independent journalism.

The end of home-working is a political decision, not a scientific one

If workers prefer to work from home, and have proven over 22 months they can do so, what's the problem? 

By Sarah Manavis

Is there a stranger creature born of this pandemic than the slavering office obsessive? The kind of person who glorifies the five-day week and longs for an end to home working, insisting that office attendance means greater productivity (an idea that has repeatedly been disproved).

Their figureheads tend to be some of the more divisive characters in business, such as Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin and businessman-cum-reality star Alan Sugar. They are resistant to the idea that another, better work life is possible, and to a future where workers have more free time at the cost of their vested interests. 

[see also: Is working from home really an improvement on the office?]

While the spike in Omicron cases at the start of December cut these people’s dreams short – as home-working rules were reinstated by the government – their pain has been short-lived. As of Thursday (20 January), work from home orders in England have been scrapped. Addressing the House of Commons last Wednesday, Boris Johnson said workers “should now speak to their employers about arrangements for returning to the office”. (In the rest of the UK, though, people have been told to continue to work from home if they can). 

Unsurprisingly, Johnson’s language suggests staff should be going back to an office, rather than having a choice. This government’s position has, since the summer of 2020, been staunchly pro-office. This helps it appear pro-business – aiding economic recovery and saving Pret – and makes it easier to withhold support for industries such as hospitality hit hardest by people staying at home. It also makes it seem as if ministers have ended the pandemic and that everything is, somehow, back to normal. 

When the government has encouraged returning to the office in the past (most prominently in July 2020 and September 2021), either case numbers were extremely low or most of the population was recently vaccinated. While case numbers are currently dropping, deaths are still high and the NHS has tens of thousands of Covid patients in hospital on top of the usual winter pressures. So why remove restrictions now?

While Johnson’s government broadly had the public’s support earlier in the pandemic, today it is dealing with near-daily scandals that have outraged the public. The sudden move away from Plan B measures seems more like a distraction, or a bid for public favour, rather than being founded in a sincere belief that caution is no longer required. 

Content from our partners
The cost-of-living crisis is hitting small businesses – Liz Truss must act
How industry is key for net zero
How to ensure net zero brings good growth and green jobs

The result is that many workers are being told to go back to the office at a time when they have a greater risk of catching Covid than ever before. Employees at some organisations could face severe repercussions – including job losses – if they refuse to return to the office. 

It’s easy to see the current decision-making for what it is: political, not scientific. Employers, backed by a government mandate, may argue that the relative mildness of the Omicron variant is a good enough reason to insist employees return. But this fails to consider the reality for many workers: some are especially vulnerable, others have vulnerable people in their household, and vaccine effectiveness is waning for everyone. There are risks even for the young and vaccinated, such as a lack of sick pay if they do fall ill and the threat of long Covid. These were valid concerns even when case numbers were significantly lower. Now, workers are in an even tougher position, despite having produced even more evidence that they can do their jobs just as well from home.

After two years, should people really be forced into an office at all? Let’s say the pandemic ended tomorrow: if workers prefer to work from home, and have proven that over 22 months they can do so, what’s the objection? 

So many of the pandemic’s cultural shifts will be forgotten when it does finally end, but others cannot be undone. No matter how much bosses and managers may want a return to the old ways of working, many have realised that they prefer to cut out expensive commutes and kitchen small talk. The pushback against this reality from both employers and the government – especially right now – is a dangerous impediment to progress.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Topics in this article: