Britain, like much of the world, is on the verge of an economic recession, fueled by inflation, the cost-of-living crisis and the impact of the war in Ukraine.
I fear we may be entering a recession worse than anything seen in my 40 years in business.
It is a grim prospect and we will need all the courage and determination to get through the difficult times ahead. Certainly, one luxury we can’t allow ourselves to get any longer is WFH – working from home.
Faced with a terrifying new virus and lockdown, digital technology provides us with the possibility that WFH is a godsend for millions of people. It certainly prevented the economy from going into free fall.
Two years on, when the shadow of the pandemic has receded, too many people have become addicted to the practice of WFH.
But two years on, when the shadow of the pandemic has receded, too many people have become addicted to the practice of WFH and have no intention of returning to the office.
They’ve lost the habit of commuting and are perhaps too used to being in their pajamas until a Zoom meeting dictates otherwise.
They love the constant access to the kitchen and the box of cookies, or the chance to wander out into the garden to smell the roses whenever they like, while enjoying being able to leisurely scroll on their mobile phones without any distractions. Not afraid of the boss’s gaze.
And, of course, they find that they can spend more time with their spouse or children.
Yes, I’m a bit of a finicky person, but it’s true that working from home has facilitated the holy grail – especially those on the Left – in terms of work-life balance.
Unfortunately, all the focus is now on ‘life’ rather than ‘work’. In-house routines have taken precedence over workplace routines.
Nowhere is this more evident than in taxpayer-funded civil service.
Not surprisingly, there were shouts of protest from the usual suspects – not least the unions – condemning Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Government’s Efficiency Minister, for daring to speak to his colleagues. Cabinet industry this week that its officials must return to office. all the time.
His intervention comes after the Mail revealed that tens of thousands of civil servants are being urged to continue working from home indefinitely – for up to three days a week.
This combination of time at home and office is called ‘combined work’, a bit of jargon intended to make it sound innovative and progressive. In practice, however, I see it as a license to skate.
Indeed, the Mail investigation found that on a typical Monday morning, in many public sector offices, less than 10% of employees work at their desks.
It is not difficult to conclude that new ways of working are being exploited to enable employees to have long weekends. But it’s not just Monday. A league table drawn up by Rees-Mogg’s office shows several Government agencies deserted throughout the week.
At the Department of Education, three-quarters of staff are at home on any given day.
The Work and Pensions Department and the Foreign Office are not much better either, with more than two-thirds of staff at home.
There are other concerns, too. Reports this week showed that even Downing Street was targeted by hackers who tracked digital communications via Pegasus spyware in employees’ phones, must make every Government agency ( and businesses) fear their potential for criminal activity.
Make no mistake, hacking into a home wifi network is child’s play compared to eavesdropping on Whitehall.
However, as the Mail revealed yesterday, GCHQ jobs and roles in counter-terrorism at the Home Office are still being advertised as part or all of a work-from-home opportunity.
Public servants unions might view Rees-Mogg’s call to end the WFH culture as ‘revenge’ and insist that it is just as effective as it is in the office – but that simply isn’t true.
It’s a farce to pretend that people at home work as diligently as colleagues who come to the office.
My own experience as an entrepreneur over the past two years, liaising with people at the Interior Department or the Vehicle Licensing Authority, is that working from home becomes a bureaucratic nightmare. And I know that tens of thousands of people contacting other departments, perhaps needing passports or other important documents, would agree with me.
Calls go unanswered, emails go unanswered, and people take longer to perform routine administrative tasks than in the past.
And as you spend time waiting for someone to get back to you, you can’t help but wonder how many employees are walking their dogs, resting on their Peloton, or picking up kids from school when, before, they would. were at their desks.
It has gone too far, and similar scenarios are playing out in businesses across the country – with all the economic consequences that come with lost productivity.
There is resistance to working from home restrictions, of course, because fewer people are eager to go back to the harder ‘old way’.
For example, going to work is rarely a pleasant experience. It also costs both time and money, and going back to the office can feel like a pay cut for some.
But the reality is that if people don’t come to their workplace, the job won’t get done.
Nor do I believe that work conducted outside of the workplace is done to the same standards or at the same pace.
It’s hard to stay motivated without co-workers – especially for younger employees who need guidance when it comes to face-to-face contact.
Socializing – even if it’s just a cold-water exchange – is an important aspect of the job. Indeed, social interaction is the key to creating vital creativity in whatever field you are in.
What we are seeing now is the rise of a new social divide, with some workers, especially those on the lowest wages, having no choice about where they work.
Waiters, factory workers, builders, supermarket workers and delivery drivers cannot work from home. So how can it be true that the laptop class can exploit the WFH option employers offer them under the skeptical guise of ‘stay safe’?
WFH enthusiasts consider all of this outcry a backward response to a positive change at sea that has occurred in the UK industry landscape since the onset of Covid. But they were very wrong.
They ignore the impact on tens of thousands of small inner-city businesses – and our transport connections – that previously depended on the flow of people. It’s not surprising – these companies and their employees are easily forgotten in the story of the ‘bright new future of work’.
Economic worries aren’t the only reason I fear the grip that work-from-home will have on us. There is a price to pay for humanity.
Since closing in March 2020, I walk to my office every day because I need to create space between home and work. Without it, I would have lost my paradise where I could escape the pressures of work at the end of the day.
Staying in the same place day and night is not healthy. It is isolated. Humans are social animals. That’s how we work best.
And with the challenges we face in the coming months, we will have to do our best to survive.
Luke Johnson is an entrepreneur and founder of Risk Capital Partners