Soon after the start of lockdown, as millions of people across the UK found themselves logging into work from their kitchens, spare rooms and attics, commentators began speculating that daily commutes to the office could become a thing of the past for many.
But Boris Johnson has different ideas. The Prime Minister wants to see people back at their desks as soon as possible.
And last Friday’s headline in the Daily Telegraph – which used to pay Mr Johnson £275,000 a year for a weekly column – put the message starkly: “Go back to work or risk losing your job.”
Government sources were quoted warning that working from home would make people more vulnerable to being sacked. Home-working was “not the benign option it seems”.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak was said to be worried about “eerily quiet city centres” leading to more job losses in sandwich shops, gyms and pubs, as well as the financial cost of running near-empty trains and buses.
A UK Government campaign to get people back to their offices would be “a call to arms”.
Nicola Sturgeon regularly says she does not want to tell other governments what to do, but there was no mistaking her take on this latest move.
The advice in Scotland, in contrast to England, is that people should continue to work from home if possible. Ms Sturgeon said everyone flocking back to offices just now, and the pressure it would put on public transport, would present “too high a risk” of the virus spreading.
And she insisted she would not countenance people being “intimidated” into returning to their desks. Suggesting they would be at more risk of redundancy because they were not in the office was an unfair pressure. “That’s not the approach I’m going to have the Scottish Government take here.”
For good measure, the First Minister also added: “I think we should be grasping the opportunities for more flexibility around the way people work to allow people to strike a better work-life balance.”
Mr Johnson sometimes likes to play down the differences between his handling of the pandemic and Ms Sturgeon’s, arguing that Scotland and the rest of the UK have typically taken very similar steps at roughly the same time. But that ignores the contrast in their underlying approach to the crisis. And their very different messages on working from home is perhaps the clearest illustration of that divergence so far.
His enthusiasm for everyone going back to their offices smacks of the same gung-ho attitude that saw him talk about sending the virus packing or wrestling it to the ground.
The FDA civil servants union branded the UK Government “dinosaurs” for wanting a full return to office working. Individuals’ attitudes will differ – some will be eager to get back to their desks because they miss the face-to-face interaction or there’s too little space at home, but others will prefer to save time by cutting out the commuting and carry on working remotely from home.
If there is any silver lining to this terrible virus, surely it is the chance to look afresh at assumptions about so many aspects of our way of living.
Society evolves and usually for a reason. If home-working has proved a success for people and their employers, it begins to look like a trend which governments might find it futile to try to stand in the way of.
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