26 April 2022

There’s nothing ‘Dickensian’ about getting staff to work in an office

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Farewell then, ‘Dickensian’. It has finally joined its much-abused counterpart, ‘Orwellian’, in the list of words which have been used so broadly as to deprive them of all their original power.

In this case, the fingerprint on the knife belongs to Nadine Dorries, and her baffling attack on Jacob Rees-Mogg’s bid to get civil servants back into the office now that Covid restrictions are retreating into the rear-view mirror.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether or not his push is a good idea. But to compare it to the cruel taskmasters and deadly workplaces of Charles Dickens’ Victorian era is absurd. (So too are Labour’s claims that it amounts to ‘bullying’, another serially over-used word.)

Dorries’ language is unfortunate because her deeper point – ‘why aren’t we measuring productivity?’ – is a good one which deserves an answer. 

Speaking as someone who has worked from home more days than not since 2015, there are definitely upsides to an approach in which one is, by necessity, measured on output rather than attendance and makes ‘presenteeism’ impossible.

But what works well in a small outfit driven by lots of short-term deadlines does not necessarily scale to a sprawling organisation operating over much longer timescales. It is not difficult to imagine how universal remote working makes it much easier for the system to gum up, with individuals better able to ‘hide behind their screens’ without being sought out in person.

Of course, if the Civil Service really can operate on a mostly-remote basis with no loss of efficacy, that would be transformational news.

All of a sudden, the Government would have the opportunity not just to save on salaries by scrapping the London weighting – which has already been floated as a response to civil servants’ stubborn refusal to return to their desks – but perhaps go even further in relocating departments outside London and divesting itself of some fabulously valuable real estate.

The idea of scrapping the London weighing has met with squeals of outrage, of course. But it is difficult to make the case that the Government should pay a premium for workers in the capital if they don’t need to actually come into the office. Zoom calls and the odd train ticket would come in a lot cheaper.

Nor should we forget that the major potential inequalities for young people arising from home working will affect the Civil Service as much as anyone else.

Missing out on the commute is all well and good, but remote working also means losing out on the opportunity to learn from one’s peers, catch the boss’s attention, or imbibe the corporate culture. 

Young workers (especially in London) are also most likely to be working from their bedrooms in cramped flat shares and feel more keenly than their older colleagues the opportunity to make friends and be in the centre of town several nights a week.

This doesn’t mean the Government should try and force everyone back to their desks five days a week. Large workplaces put a lot of effort into setting up the infrastructure for home working during the pandemic, and now have a couple of years’ experience of managing remote working.

Were Rees-Mogg to simply ignore all that, he might earn the reactionary label his opponents enjoy throwing around. But that is not the same as insisting that civil servants spend a majority of the working week in the office.

There is also no getting around the fact that this is shaping up to be an important trial of political strength. The Government ought to be able to set its own conditions of work. If ministers can’t get civil servants back to their desks, despite a concerted effort to do so, they will look feeble.

Perhaps such an experience might prompt Boris Johnson to dust off Dominic Cummings’ plans for overhauling the Civil Service, which like most of the original agenda for structural reform have lain idle since their champion was driven out of the Prime Minister’s chaotic court.

So far, Johnson does seem to be giving Rees-Mogg his backing. But unless the will is there to follow up this campaign with the spectre of a more wide-ranging modernisation of Civil Service practises, the Battle of Whitehall may yet be just one more Government defeat at the hands of the Blob.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.