It sounds as though the challenges of managing hybrid working are affecting everyone, including the Government. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Minister for Government Efficiency (amongst other things), has been deploying a range of measures to increase the number of civil servants attending Whitehall offices. As well as leaving official notes on empty desks with the message “Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon”, he has reportedly suggested civil servants could lose London weighting allowances if they do not return to their office.
Rees-Mogg, writing in the Mail on Sunday, highlighted the disparity in attendance between different teams within the Cabinet Office, suggesting it was dispiriting for those coming in, bearing the cost of commuting, while noticing the absence of their “confreres”. Controversially, he compared those who were at their desks, who he described as “younger, hardworking and ambitious”, with others who “enjoyed the fruits of their London weighting at home in the Shires”.
Whilst his cabinet colleague Nadine Dorries suggested that there was something Dickensian about Rees-Mogg’s approach, he proclaimed the “need to reform Government with a smaller, high performing and correctly incentivised civil service where talented officials thrive” announcing that “to do that we need to get back to the office”.
All of this contrasts with recent research from Perkbox, that identified strong support for the notion that remote and hybrid working has been hugely positive in supporting more diverse and inclusive working environments, with the increased flexibility, according to their research, being particularly valued by younger employees who may be more likely to have caring responsibilities.
What can we learn from the Government’s tribulations?
- Organisations need to have a clear policy which has the support of senior managers. Different departments doing different things and different managers sending different messages is bound to lead to confusion and discontent.
- Policies need to recognise the different wishes and priorities of individuals. Rees-Mogg, and some of his colleagues, have a clear view that Whitehall is a particular working environment with pressing deadlines and a need to be able to talk to colleagues’ face to face, which demands that people are in the office. It is difficult to see that Whitehall is any different to the majority of workplaces in this respect. Whether they are right or wrong in their view, they ignore the wishes of those who may want to retain the option of working from home at their peril. Rees-Mogg might be envisaging a slimmed down civil service but if individuals start to leave the civil service because they are denied the flexibility they want, he may find that it is the wrong people who are leaving?
- Is age at the heart of the issue? Rees-Mogg draws a dangerous link between youth, diligence and ambition. Is diligence and ambition the preserve of the young. Aside from the fact that, if it were to creep into any form of selection process, that link gives support to charges of age discrimination, does it really stand up to scrutiny? Is it just the old who seek to work from home?
- Employers need to consider the impact of hybrid working on other aspects of the employment relationship, especially pay and allowances. An underlying theme of Rees-Mogg’s article is his frustration that London weighting is being paid to individuals who do not work in London and who claim that they do not need to be in London. If he is right, that needs to be addressed through a process of engagement and discussion with the workforce and their representatives.
Whilst Rees-Mogg’s view might be described as Dickensian, there is clearly scope for a wide range of thinking, both by employers and by employees on new working models and if, and how, they should be implemented. Unless those new arrangements consider the full range of differing views, they have the capacity to do as much harm to working relationships as good. The needs for clarity, cooperation with staff and consistency of message from leaders within the organisation are at the heart of any successful strategy.