Productive workforces need 'watercooler gossip', says prime minister

As Boris Johnson uses his party conference speech to call for a return to offices, experts say flexible working is still the priority for businesses

In-person meetings are necessary for productivity at work, the prime minister has said, calling on young people in particular to return to the office. 

Speaking at the Conservative party conference yesterday (6 October), Boris Johnson said a productive workforce “only comes with face-to-face meetings and watercooler gossip”. 

“If young people are to learn on the job in the way that they always have and must, we will and must see people back in the office,” he added.

Johnson also used the speech to say that his government would take the country “towards a high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity and, thereby low-tax economy”, promising that the UK was “not going back to the same old broken model with low wages, low growth, low skills and low productivity, all of it enabled and assisted by uncontrolled immigration”.

However, the prime minister did not outline any specific policies to encourage wage or skill growth, and a highly anticipated increase to the national minimum wage was not forthcoming.

Despite the prime minister’s emphasis on returning to the office, employment experts have questioned whether such a return would be possible or even desirable.

Get more HR and employment law news like this delivered straight to your inbox every day – sign up to People Management’s PM Daily newsletter

Being in an office was no guarantee of productivity, said Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD. “To build back better, we need a more flexible approach to work,” he said, quoting the government’s slogan for the post-pandemic recovery.

Willmott added that most people wanted a combination of both home and office working where possible, and advised that businesses also needed to offer other forms of flexible working such as flexible hours.

“Evidence suggests flexible working practices can support the motivation, wellbeing and productivity of workers,” Willmott said.

Alan Lewis, partner at Constantine Law, cautioned that since the pandemic had shown it was possible to work productively from home, employers were likely to face challenges in denying flexible working requests.

“The reasoning that used to be put forward regularly by employers against flexible working – business needs and the fact that the job could not be performed away from the office – no longer holds sway,” he said, although Lewis did concede that the difficulty of training less-experienced employees remotely would, in some cases, support a valid argument to deny flexible working.

Andrew Mawson, founding director of Advanced Workplace Associates, added that a hybrid approach that included face-to-face meetings could help avoid the ‘Zoom burnout’ that was ubiquitous during the pandemic.

But, he said, many business leaders had already started to enjoy reduced facilities costs and a smaller carbon footprint through remote working with no negative impact on the quality and quantity of work produced.

“Regardless of instruction to go back to the office, many people and organisations have discovered the potency and efficacy of their new virtual lives,” said Mawson.

Commenting on the prime minister’s pledge to boost skills and wages, Tony Danker, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said this needed to be “backed up by action on skills, on investment and on productivity”, warning that without corresponding increases in productivity, wage growth would ultimately lead to higher prices.

Willmott added that while moving to a high-wage, high-skill economy would be positive for the country, the government’s Plan for Growth “requires significant development and changes to policy and investment to meet this ambition”.

“The government must take steps to encourage and enable many more businesses to invest in the people management capability, skills development and technology required to create more high-paid, high-skilled jobs across all regions and sectors,” he said.