Lovewell’s logic: Is Jacob Rees-Mogg right to force civil servants back to the office?

What is your view of working from home? That seems to be the current million dollar question. Something that millions of us adapted to at speed during lockdown now seems to be coming under increasing scrutiny as the UK adapts to living with Covid.

The debate around this practice was re-ignited earlier this week when Jacob Rees-Mogg, minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiencies, left notes on the empty desks of Whitehall civil servants stating: ‘Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.’

He also reportedly suggested that individuals who do not return to the office could effectively see their pay reduced by removing their London weighting allowance.

Other government ministers have publicly branded his views as ‘Dickensian’. But who is right? Should employers be forcing staff to return to the office? Or should they embrace a practice that has come into its own for many?

Some employees will undoubtedly be keen to return to a physical workplace, particularly if they do not have the space to work successfully from home or benefit from the social aspects of physically working alongside colleagues. Others, however, will find it harder to return due to factors such as concerns or anxiety relating to Covid, the work-life balance they have established while working from home or the fact that they find it easier to work away from a bustling office environment.

As someone who spent half of my working week pre-pandemic working from home and is now permanently based from home, this is something I can wholeheartedly relate to. Without the distractions of an office environment, my productivity levels are certainly much higher (not that they were low while in the office!) and I found myself saving bigger projects for the days when I knew I would have the time and quiet space to focus.

Not having to commute will also have freed up time for employees to spend with family, which they may find difficult to give up. Forcing staff back into the office, therefore, may well result in some looking for a new employer that will provide them with the flexibility they have come to value.

In any event, can removing a portion of someone’s pay ever be justified on the basis that they would prefer to continue working from home? While some would argue that a London weighting allowance is no longer required if an individual is not paying the cost of commuting, rising energy bills will mean that homeworkers will be facing additional costs for everyday items such as gas, electricity and water. Even savings made from not making a daily Pret visit are likely to be swallowed in higher food prices and grocery bills.

With numerous pros and cons for working from home, and myriad personal factors impacting employees’ preferences, what works for one workforce may well not work for another. While such a heavy-handed approach to forcing staff back to the office is not necessarily the right way to go, a certain degree of flexibility and empathy on both sides is required if employers and employees are to find a new optimum way of working that suits all sides.

But what are your views? Is Jacob Rees-Mogg right to force employees back into the office? Or should he and other employers embrace a new flexible way of working?

Debbie Lovewell-Tuck
Tweet: @DebbieLovewell