Why do defensive civil servants refuse to come back to work?
BEFORE I tell you why civil servants should behave more like investment bankers, I want to tell you about my accountant. Alison, a wonderful woman who has been keeping the wolf — and bankruptcy — from my door since God was a boy, is, like many accountants, a pragmatist at heart.
As the hysteria around the Covid pandemic drew to end, and the big bear of British productivity stretched its paws, yawned, and grumpily went back to work, Alison’s company decided to change its working structures. They binned their offices, started renting a shared-space around the corner — it’s in Holborn and looks like a Starbucks with tiny offices attached — and got back to work. Apart from their physical location, nothing much changed. Alison was as diligent as she ever was, as productive, as efficient, and still found innumerable ways to nag me about completing my VAT returns.
She is, however, an anomaly. Because — takes deep breath, steps onto podium, waits for abuse — working from home does not work. That’s right. One of the masterful production executives at the Evening Standard calls working from home a skiver’s charter, and, having been momentarily aghast at the phrase when I first heard it, I actually think he’s got it bang on.
It’s almost four years since Covid emptied our offices, a necessity that portended a shift in work culture that is still worryingly prevalent. Round our way — Liverpool Street — the world goes about its business with a fervour and a determination you would expect from one of the most important termini in London. Restaurants are full, people spill out of bars, and lovers canoodle in doorways, cowering away from the crowds. So evocative is the activity around EC2, it makes me want to sing “Waterloo Sunset” every day.
Well, Monday to Thursday it does. On Friday, Liverpool Street and its environs look as though someone dropped a neutron bomb, the old threat which neutralises people and leaves buildings intact. And this situation is replicated all over the city.
Last month, civil servants were told they were now required to spend at least 60 per cent of their time working in the office. Not 100 per cent, and not 120 per cent, in order to make up for the time over the past three years they’ve been walking the dog and watching YouTube. Just three measly days a week.
Rather predictably, the Blob has decided that even this mild encroachment on their leisure time is a massive inconvenience, as last week some worrying statistics suddenly appeared. Of 12,000 officials surveyed on the new rules by the PCS trade union, nearly 40 per cent — nearly 5,000 — said they had considered resigning instead.
As many again said that going back into the office would “disadvantage them because of their sex, disability or age”. Which frankly sounds like the kind of excuse a 12-year-old would come up with.
Thankfully, the PM thinks homeworking is hampering the delivery of policy, although he isn’t doing anything about it. As No 10 appear to have exhausted ways of shifting the polls, perhaps they should have a pop at the Civil Service. Rishi Sunak should tell them to get off their Pelotons, put down their box sets and get back to serving the people who pay their not insubstantial wages — us. Homeworking doesn’t work, and employers — including the Crown — should stop being embarrassed to say so.
I say, if you can’t be more Alison, then be more Goldman. I have a friend whose 20-something daughter is firmly ensconced at Goldman Sachs, working all the hours God sends in pursuit of the deal. She works hard, as the expectations are huge.
Up at five, in by six, home by midnight if she’s lucky. She doesn’t work a three-day week, not even a four-dayweek; in fact she doesn’t work a fiveday-week either. No, she works six days a week, with a little time off for sleeping, edible fortification and the occasional trip to the gym. She’s Gen Z, too.
So like I say: be more Goldman. Or be more Alison. But for the love of God please get off the sofa.
One friend’s daughter is up at five, in by six, home by midnight if she’s lucky — she works a six-day week
Evening Standard Limited