Why Rees-Mogg’s Dickensian view of home working will backfire on the government

Treating civil servants like factory workers will harm the government’s ability to deliver on policies says James Moore

Monday 25 April 2022 15:43 BST
The minister for Brexit opportunities has reheated the debate over working from home
The minister for Brexit opportunities has reheated the debate over working from home (Reuters)

Rachel Johnson is the latest to chime in on the work-from-home row, reheated by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s passive aggressive notes left on the empty desks of colleagues in his department.

“Too many people” are “on their Pelotons”, “watching Netflix” and “home working”, the prime minister’s sister fulminated on her radio show.

In doing so she echoed Rees-Mogg’s positively Dickensian view of the workplace.

The minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency, once pictured disrespectfully sprawled over the House of Commons benches, has a live-in nanny. Ms Johnson has sent her kids to fancy boarding schools. These are both one per centers for whom flexible working, including the ability to work from home, is relatively unimportant. They have the means to be as flexible or as inflexible as they want. (Ms Johnson also seems to have overlooked the fact that it costs a couple of grand, not to mention ongoing subs, for Peloton’s pricey exercise gear.)

Most workers face an entirely different situation to this pair of blowhards, who do rather embody the old proverb about empty heads making the most noise.

There is a reason work from home has proved popular and it has nothing to do with the deeply regressive idea that employees won’t do any work if their boss isn’t watching over them for the entire working day.

It was given voice in a Trades Union Congress (TUC) report, which came out last week. It received 6,000 responses to its call to submit evidence to the government review of flexible working. An analysis of those responses found “huge support” for the idea, particularly among families and disabled workers.

It goes without saying that the ability to work from home for at least part of the working week is very much a part of flexible working. It is nothing short of a godsend for disabled workers – including this writer. As one respondent put it: “Without flexible working I am required to put my job first and my health second.”

It is no less useful for families, all the more so in the midst of a cost of living crisis, exacerbated by Britain’s punitive childcare costs.

Here’s another quote from a contributor to the TUC’s research: “Currently I have to take unpaid leave whenever my child is poorly even though I could do my role from home – this causes me financial difficulties and stress.”

The burden of childcare still falls disproportionately on women, so flexible working is particularly helpful for them. More of it would help to reduce the gender pay gap, among other things. Those attacking it are throwing knives at an army of female workers who don’t have the options enjoyed by the Johnsons and the Rees-Moggs of this world.

The TUC’s point about flexible working requests being too easily turned down by backwards-looking employers is well made.

On the flip side, there is a clear benefit to employers who recognise the value in offering flexible working in what has become an intense competition for talent, created by the labour shortages Britain is experiencing across multiple sectors. They will find it easier to attract those who have options. Their businesses and customers will benefit.

In the case of the government, the customers are taxpayers and voters. Civil servants play an important role in “delivering” for them. Treating them like the workers in a Victorian factory creates roadblocks in that delivery because many will quit in favour of more enlightened employers who will welcome them with open arms.

At least some of Rees-Mogg’s fellow ministers appear to have worked out that this threatens to help send their beleaguered government the way of Richard Arkwright’s water frame.

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