Working from home breeds sluggish, self-indulgent culture – at its worst it’s institutionalised skiving
DEVISED as an emergency measure during the Covid lockdown, the practice of working from home has remained stubbornly in place long after the end of the pandemic.
Its continued widespread use partly reflects its popularity among staff, who relish the more relaxed approach it brings, especially through the reduction in commuting.
Such is the enthusiasm in Britain for this change that, among developed countries, only Canada has a higher rate of working from home.
Yet every revolution has its downsides. What is cherished by many workers may not be good for the economy, nor wider society.
For a start, there is a danger that the practice could fuel resentment, since a vast range of jobs cannot be carried out at home — from healthcare to hospitality, from retailing to road haulage.
Reluctant to put in hours
Indeed, 60 per cent of British workers are based fully in the workplaces and spend no time operating remotely by smart technology. This division is all the more acute because those who enjoy the privilege of working from home tend to be better paid and are more likely to be university graduates.
But there is an even bigger problem. Contrary to the early claims that the practice boosted dynamism by making staff happier, it is now clear from a wealth of research that working from home actually lowers productivity, stifles creativity, undermines staff unity and weakens the ability of management to run their organisations.
In many places, unsurprisingly, this option breeds a sluggish, self-indulgent culture, where employees are easily distracted and become reluctant to put in the hours. At its worst, working from home can be a form of institutionalised skiving.
That is why so many employers in the private sector are now pushing their workers to return to their offices for a substantial part of the week. The huge Lloyds Banking Group, for instance, has told its 40,000-strong workforce that they must turn up at least two days a week — and their attendance will be monitored by checking their swipe cards which give access to their premises.
Citi, another banking giant, has even threatened to dock the bonuses of those who do not come in three times a week.
The hardening line is encapsulated in the words of Jamie Dimon, the boss of finance company JP Morgan, who said during the summer: “I completely understand why someone doesn’t want to commute an hour and a half every day. Doesn’t mean they have to have a job here either.”
The contrast between this new private sector rigour and the self-indulgence of the public sector could not be more graphic. Companies that can only survive by their success in the competitive market have no choice but to get tougher.
But in the state machine, whose funding is guaranteed regardless of performance, the featherbedding of employees is now a guiding strategic principle.
So there is no sign of any crackdown on working from home, for bureaucrats subsidised by the taxpayer. Just the opposite is true.
It has been reported that half the office space in Whitehall remains empty and, in the same vein, South Cambridgeshire District Council has become the first local authority to introduce a four-day week for staff.
Too many public bodies now seem more focused on the wishes of the staff than the needs of the public. The culture of mollycoddling is further shown in the promotion of flexitime and generous leave, as well as the extraordinary acceptance of staff working not just from home, but even from overseas.
As the pressure group the Taxpayers’ Alliance revealed this week, local authorities have granted over the past three years no fewer than 1,350 requests from employees to work ABROAD. In 2020/21 there were 73 such approvals, which surged to 708 last year as the revolution in home-working tightened its grip.
The range of destinations from where Britain’s municipal penpushers now operate is almost as bizarre as the tolerance of these arrangements. Indonesia, Brazil, Australia, the Philippines and India are all on the list.
Employment in English local government is not meant to involve globe-trotting.
The concept of public service is not easily compatible with a well-paid official on a sun lounger under blue skies, a glass of wine in one hand, smartphone in the other.
How can any town hall officer provide an effective service when they are not even in the neighbourhood?
It is no wonder that productivity is so dismal in the public sector when such a self-serving mentality prevails.
Fall in quality of delivery
Lord Digby Jones, who served in the last Labour government, said that the “civil service could do its job with half as many staff — it could be more productive, more efficient, it could deliver a lot more value for money for the taxpayer”.
But the effectiveness of the state payroll has declined even since then. Heavily unionised, strangled by red tape, obsessed by the rights of the workforce, the public sector has seen its output fall by 5.7 per cent since before the pandemic, compared to a rise of 1.3 per cent in output in the private sector over the same period, the Financial Times reported.
The rise in working from home across our public services has been accompanied by a fall in the quality of delivery. On every front there is crisis, from the paralysis in the courts to the failing air traffic control system, just as huge asylum backlogs are matched by a paralysed rail network.
Contemptuous of the public, much of the state workforce is in a permanent mood of sullen rebellion, despite generous pay, holidays, hours and pensions. And nothing will change if this management does not assert itself.
Working from the beach is a symbol of a British state that has lost all morality and purpose.
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