The British government is trying to make people return to city centres. They’re going precisely the wrong way about it
The way Conservative party politicians talk to the British public is very, very weird. Last week, the prime minister took to the airwaves to tell young people that they should stop working from home and return to their offices. “Otherwise you’re going to be gossiped about and you’re going to lose out,” Johnson warned on LBC.
The day before, Conservative party chairman Oliver Dowden made fun of a civil service colleague who has enjoyed spending time once dedicated to commuting with her children instead, or on her exercise bike. “Get off your Pelotons and get back to work!” he told her peers, from the safe distance of the Tory conference podium.
Then, Iain Duncan Smith MP wrote a column in the Daily Mail bemoaning the fact that, 80 years after government officials toiled through the Blitz, many civil servants followed government rules and worked from home when Covid-19 struck. “Instead of rising to that challenge, as the wartime generation would have done, they have thrown their hands up in despair – before locking the doors and scuttling off home, of course,” he wrote, ignoring a couple of teeny things like the invention of the internet and the infectiousness of an airborne virus.
Their words have been rattling around my brain for the past few days, in the way that nasty words do. Because while the government professes to care about mental health – at the weekend, the prime minister appeared in a video rightly encouraging military veterans to seek help when they need it – its members are falling over one another to belittle young people already burdened with anxieties and financial insecurity, and hardworking people who’ve found time to exercise and see their families.
If we’re being understanding, we might look sympathetically at the tricky situation in which the government finds itself. Despite Covid-19 restrictions ending months ago, UK city centres and business districts are still quieter than they were before the pandemic. Data shows that in mid-September, when schools had already returned from summer holidays, just 18.3 per cent of UK office workers were in their office on any given day. At the end of September, 50 per cent of UK workers were still working from home at least some of the time, compared to 37 per cent before the pandemic. According to data from YouGov, even more people would choose to work from home some or all of the time if they could. “All white-collar workers have tasted freedom, and they want more of it,” says Julia Hobsbawm, who leads The Workshift Commission at the thinktank Demos and is co-presenter of the Nowhere Office podcast.
That’s difficult for the government because if people don’t come back in high enough numbers to fill office blocks and pack trains, it will be asked to bail out struggling companies. Already, the government has given £4 billion to Transport for London (TfL) – support that runs out in December. TFL is now asking for an additional £1.7 billion of support up to April 2023, as shown in a submission to the chancellor’s ongoing Spending Review. “You do not have to be an economist to know that the economic shock or threat to city centres and central business districts, as they have been configured for the last sort of 50 odd years around offices, is really what’s driving, I think, what can only be described as panic,” says Hobsbawm.
The problem is that the government’s chosen method isn’t just insensitive – “more bullying than nudge,” says Hobsbawm – it is unnecessary. In real-world situations, negative messaging from politicians isn’t more effective than positive messaging in changing people’s behaviour. And there are plenty of positive reasons why people – young people in particular – would want to be in an office, among their colleagues, without being guilt-tripped or frightened into being there. The social interaction; professional networking; being able to ask a quick question, rather than leave a message lingering on Slack; being able to work somewhere other than your bedroom. None of these will be surprising or unfamiliar. But maybe they help explain why, according to the Office for National Statistics, younger workers are already less likely to enjoy working from home compared to older workers.
The prime minister should probably accept that there are some who’ve swapped city life for the country, or long commutes for family time, who will never be tempted back. If he wants bustling city centres, he could make a case for people who are still in two minds about their future that the city has something to offer them. He might do better by focusing on the positives inherent in face-to-face working, rather than reprimanding those who decide, together with their employers, as is their right, to work remotely.
After all, as Duncan Smith wrote in his Mail column, public servants should lead by example. Mockery and fearmongering aren’t admirable examples to set.
Photograph by Tolga Akmen/AFP