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Remote work or back to the office? The government just picked the wrong side of this argument

Remote and hybrid working have proved their effectiveness. They're here to stay.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director on
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The government has decided it really wants workers to get back to their desks – and now.

Ministers at government agencies have been told to encourage a 'rapid return to the office' because of the benefits of "face-to-face, collaborative working", according to news reports. They've even been sent a list showing which departments have been sending most – and least – staff back to the office.

It's an odd position for the government to take.

The UK's civil service has long been accused of being far too concentrated in central London, and Whitehall has been an administrative hub for centuries. That made sense in the past, but increasingly civil servants no longer need to be clustered around Parliament.

SEE: Remote work vs office life: Lots of experiments and no easy answers

Over the last couple of decades, successive governments have moved big chunks of government departments out of London completely.

That's a good idea; these are jobs that can be done from anywhere, thanks to modern technologies. They're also highly-paid and highly-skilled roles, which means they give local economies a boost – and London is strong enough not to miss them.

On top of that, getting outside of the 'Westminster bubble' can give civil servants a better and broader perspective – and maybe offer a better work-life balance, too.  

Much of this thinking also applies to remote work. No surprise, then, that the head of a civil service union has described the move as both vindictive and demoralising.

"The government, which used to actually be at the forefront of flexible working, is sounding like luddites, while the rest of the economy is embracing hybrid working," said FDA general secretary Dave Penman.

The government is also out of sync with what's happening in the wider economy. Businesses have spent a lot of time during the past two years thinking about the future of work and the future of their office space.

Some have done away with it completely, others have reinvented it as a place for team working (or just for a free lunch). Many have adopted a hybrid-working approach.

None of these developments are without their challenges, for sure.

SEE: The future of work: How everything changed and what's coming next

But it's clear that staff will welcome attempts to rethink the working week that offer them the flexibility to decide how to be most productive.

Employers that refuse to offer this flexibility are most likely to see their staff join the Great Resignation wave.

So, what about this government drive to get its workers back in the office? It's not clear what it believes the benefits will be beyond a mention, in a letter to ministers, of 'wider benefits for the economy'.

There are undoubtedly some benefits to working together as a team in an office: it can be good for morale, for innovation and for helping people to learn from one another. Today's online tools simply can't replace all of that.

But it's equally possible to argue that flexible working will create the real 'wider benefits for the economy'.

And when you are dealing with the scale of the government, the decisions you make about how hundreds of thousands of staff work can have huge implications, for everything from pollution, because remote workers travel less, through to the impact on the high street. Maybe it's a good thing to spend money in your neighbourhood and not in the centre of a city. More remote working means smaller, cheaper offices – something a government keen on balancing the books should be interested in. And it can open up roles to people who would otherwise not be able to take them.

SEE: 'Striking a balance': How one company is rethinking the office for hybrid work

In reality, there's more than a whiff of politics about this demand for workers to get back to the office, the implication being that remote work isn't really work – a conceit that plays to the Conservatives' electoral base.

But forcing workers back into the office is unlikely to make the government more efficient: it's likely to make it harder to attract and retain the best talent, and will probably do more harm than good.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening take on the week in tech, written by members of our editorial team. We're a global team so this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US, and 11:00PM in London.


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