‘The ‘Britannia Unchained’ Gang are on the Wrong Side of the Home Working Revolution’
Traditional, hierarchical attitudes to work are going to stifle the economic growth that Liz Truss so craves, argues Rachel Morris
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Is remote working remotely working? It depends on who you ask. The pandemic exploded working from home (WFH) globally. While many pretend the virus has gone away, the WFH surge appears to be permanent.
Some are concerned, even apoplectic. Take magnate and Apprentice star Lord Alan Sugar, invited onto Good Morning Britain to express unequivocal opposition. He said home-workers should earn less, as they save on travel, and return to their workplace or be fired.
“A large percentage of people who work from home are lazy gits,” he tweeted. “They got to like the life created by the pandemic”.
He has also described hybrid working a “come and go as you fancy” culture in which people “sit on bean bags and flick elastic bands at each other”. Sugar was urged to retire from the House of Lords after journalists revealed he had attended 14% of sittings since 2009 and had made no spoken contributions since 2018.
Leaked Elon Musk emails revealed that his Tesla employees can no longer WFH. Musk told staff who’d prefer it that they can “pretend to work somewhere else”.
Boris Johnson said in May that his experience of working from home was that “you spend an awful lot of time making another cup of coffee and then, you know, getting up, walking very slowly to the fridge, hacking off a small piece of cheese”. To learn Johnson cannot keep his focus while WFH is unsurprising.
This has been a cause fervently taken up by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who left critical notes for civil servants who were in some cases WFH because there weren’t enough desks in the office. Rees-Mogg is now Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary.
Before the Industrial Revolution, WFH was considered normal and productive. But as work became more urban, controlled and hierarchical, the practice was increasingly viewed with suspicion, even after technological advancements enabled teleworking and subsequently online work. (The Sisyphean labour carried out for the home, largely by women, is of course considered ‘not work’).
It is common to see WFH represented as ‘skiving’, slumping in PJs watching daytime TV while on-site colleagues do more than their fair share. This view of home workers as ‘not team players’ extends to feeling these people swerve ‘company culture’, harming workplace cohesion.
Last summer, then Chancellor Rishi Sunak urged people back to workplaces, claiming “you can’t beat the spontaneity, the team-building, the culture that you create”. He said employees may “vote with their feet” if not given workplaces, and warned young people that WFH would harm their careers.
Are these views true or merely a reflection of Treasury concern for commercial property owners and urban centre economies relying on worker spending for survival?
The Democratisation of Work
Repeated studies highlight WFH benefits. It increases economic sustainability by allowing people to move out of city centres, reducing their rent and other overheads. Not to mention the environmental and economic savings on fuel, emissions, parking, clothing, business travel, takeaways, and vehicle wear and tear. Or the social gains of reduced commuting time, with increased connections to and spending in local communities.
Studies also show increased business productivity, with far fewer finding the opposite.
AirBnb says that pandemic WFH delivered its two most productive years, on which basis it went fully remote. Its CEO asked: ‘If the office didn’t exist today, why would we invent it?’ Companies everywhere are making similar choices.
An Office for National Statistics report found that 84% of UK workers forced to WFH during the pandemic are planning to permanently work in a hybrid fashion, with more time at home than in work. 78% said WFH improves work-life balance. More than half said that it was quicker to complete work, with fewer distractions.
If people were wary or unaware of WFH pre-pandemic, there’s no going back now. Autonomy, flexibility and trust are great motivators, high-speed internet and apps make collaboration easy. Fewer meetings that could’ve been an email, less office politics or micro-managing. Google searches for ‘remote work’ are at an all-time high.
WFH can’t apply to all jobs or demographics and there are downsides, including balancing work and family demands, increased home energy costs, and burn-out through loose boundaries between personal and work time. Companies with no remote workers pre-pandemic may struggle to support them adequately.
But WFH removes hierarchical layers and democratises work: titles become less about status and responsibility, more about process and accountability. It reduces demands on low-paid workers, who often live further from workplaces and struggle with childcare, travel and other costs, narrowing inequalities.
The pandemic effect, automation and artificial intelligence are not only changing approaches to work but also its nature. Fewer roles need to be done in person. Some jobs are vanishing, replaced by technology. 25% more low-paid workers may need to change occupations, re-training in higher-paid, often home-based work.
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Articles promoting a return to the office tend to have an unspoken agenda, which isn’t employee wellbeing, the future of work or the environment. Predictably, these come from the Spectator and other publications with property-owning pals and luddite views. But the Guardian and New Statesman have also used the ‘better when physically together’ trope and claimed GenZ hates WFH, contrary to research findings.
Theory X and Theory Y are contrasting 1950s models of workforce motivation. X focuses on supervision, external rewards and penalties, while Y stresses job satisfaction and indirect supervision. X sees workers as unambitious, irresponsible, and lazy, an ‘us versus them’ hierarchy; whereas Y takes a positive, self-directed, democratic-ish view.
Pre-internet, a blend of approaches was effective, but Theory X looks tired and authoritarian nowadays. Some bosses want people under their eye. But workers may, as Sunak put it, vote with their feet, leaving their role for a more remote opportunity.
Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity, published in 2012, was co-written by Conservative MPs belonging to the Free Enterprise Group, including our current Prime Minister Liz Truss and her Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng. It recommended the adoption of a more free market approach to business and economics to avoid an “inevitable slide into mediocrity” because “the British are among the worst idlers in the world”. “We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor,” it claimed.
While Donegal lures people to combine remote careers with dreamy landscapes and fast internet, and ‘digital nomads’ like me team up with fantastic people from Argentina to Thailand, the Conservatives team up with corporate pals and client journalists to lure or force us back to grey cube farms. In the race to ‘take Britain forward’, away from mediocrity, let’s just see who wins.