Your ivy grows: Is Britain really a laggard when it comes to returning to the office?

Another month, another attempt by the Government to stoke a faux culture war, this time over working from home. Ministers seem to have decided that the average voter will scorn lazy civil servants who refuse to return to the office, and have dispatched Jacob Rees Mogg to try to bully them into coming back. The Prime Minister seems to have convinced himself that the UK’s productivity challenges are the result of loafers dawdling at home and eating pieces of cheese rather than chronic underinvestment in education, skills and physical and digital connectivity. What fun to pick a fight with public sector unions and idlers in the upper middle classes, showing that this Government is truly on the side of Ordinary Hard Working People.

Into this debate marches the Financial Times with a chart showing definitively that the UK is lagging behind the pack when it comes to returning to the office. “The UK’s shift to homeworking has made it an outlier among most other advanced economies” the paper notes on Twitter. Mobility data from Google shows that travelling to work is down by around 23% this month compared to February 2020, whereas in places like Portugal, Greece, the Czech Republic and Slovakia commuting patterns have pretty much returned to normal.

But read the actual article and the picture becomes a bit murkier. It points out that perhaps the fact that the UK has an economy that is strongly skewed towards the services sector has a role to play: in this country 80 percent of people work in services whereas in the Czech Republic nearly 40 percent are employed in manufacturing and agriculture. It’s hard to assemble a car when you’re sitting at your kitchen table, but you can be an architect, a lawyer – or a PR person. And our dire transport system must also affect decision-making: the average person in the UK spends nearly an hour travelling to and from work each day whilst in Portugal and Greece they spent around a third fewer hours commuting. The cost is important too. London is beaten only by Copenhagen and Stockholm for the cost of public transit, whilst Bratislava is less than a quarter of the price.

In other words, it is no surprise that Britain is ‘lagging’ when so many more people have the opportunity to work from home, and doing so is so appealing. And companies like it too, given the opportunity to downsize their expensive offices in the middle of London and other cities. (It’s worth noting in passing that despite Rees Mogg’s crusade Whitehall has been encouraging civil servants to work from home for years.) They also find that their employees are happier and in fact, despite the PM’s caricature, more productive too, as the pandemic has amply demonstrated.

None of this means that the Prime Minister isn’t right when he talks about creativity, energy, learning on the job and a host of other benefits that result from spending at least a bit of time in the office. Productivity gains from working from home are unlikely to be maintained forever if peoples’ skills wither or are never developed in the first place. Workers toiling away alone are unlikely to be as innovative as teams bringing together diverse thinking. And for many people working from home involves being isolated, often in cramped spaces that they want to escape. As so many people have said, hybrid working for those who can do it will be the new normal. And it will be agreed between employers and employees: the Government should stay out of it.

Instead, Ministers who want to solve the UK’s productivity challenges might want to put their energies into supporting people rather than attacking or dividing them. It would, for example, be a lot better use of Jacob Rees Mogg’s time to focus on encouraging the delivery, finally, of superfast broadband and a joined-up and ambitious programme of investment in transport links. He could support training in the skills people will need in the future, and he could urge fellow Ministers to tackle every part of the education system to make sure it is turning out more people with the qualifications and aptitude needed. Or he could just get a computer on his own desk, and see what that does for his own productivity and that of the people around him.