Jacob Rees Mogg’s return-to-office call: is he right?

The cabinet minister has sparked a row by placing cards on the desks of civil servants not working from the office, with some saying the move doesn’t make HR sense

Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing/Getty Images

Remote and hybrid work have been nearer to the top of the news agenda over the last week. But this also comes as backlash grows to cabinet minister Jacob Rees Mogg’s push for increased civil service workplace attendance, as well as the methods he has employed to do so.

Alongside presenting an office attendance rate league table (with government departments ranked against each other) and writing to his fellow cabinet ministers to encourage a minimum for work-from-office days – a move that Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary and Rees Mogg’s governmental colleague, called “Dickensian” – it was Rees Mogg’s “I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon” card left on the desks of civil servants working remotely that has resulted in most of the critical headlines.

While some in the media defended the move – The Times wrote that Rees Mogg’s “firm” approach is necessary, citing Steve Jobs-ian logic to suggest that in-office work boosts chance encounters and organisational creativity – union leaders and business experts have called the cabinet minister’s approach “condescending”, “passive aggressive”, and “puerile”.

A leadership approach that could be toxic for culture

In fact, Rees Mogg’s actions have resulted in a debate about leadership styles.

John Amaechi OBE, organisational psychologist, New York Times best-selling author, business founder and research fellow at the University of East London, said that Rees Mogg’s could have a deleterious effect on workplace culture.

He said: “[This approach] misunderstands the relationship between employers and their colleagues. In the transactional sense, it is the most parent-child exchange you can witness. It’s an abuse of power and everyone will see it as that. This is toxic and corrosive for any culture that would build excellence.”

But not everyone agrees. Daniel Finklestein OBE, a member of the House of Lords, wrote in The Times that it was “necessary that a minister or a manager or the owner of an enterprise is able to say what they expect their staff to do and to insist upon it if necessary.”

Yet, Amaechi adds that this approach fails to take into account what work is for – positive business outcomes – and the responsibilities and needs employees have outside of their employment.

He added: “[Recently] we've seen people leaving leaders – mostly leaders, they’re not leaving brands. That's what's going to happen [via this approach] not because people are entitled but because people have complex, nuanced lives.”

Claire McCartney, resourcing and inclusion advisor at the CIPD, agrees: “This shouldn’t be about coercion: that stands to do more harm than good to an organisation’s culture and employee loyalty.

“Employers should be finding out what people want and trying to find a solution that works for all,” she added.

Is there a financial argument for returning to the office en-masse?

One government argument for a widespread return to the office is that it would make good use of “taxpayer-funded” departmental buildings. But not everyone is convinced by the government’s value-for-money reasoning.

While Dane Penman, the secretary general of the Civil service's FDA union, doesn’t disagree that the government needs to deliver value to the taxpayer, multiple news outlets quote him as saying that their lack of use – Rees Mogg figures have some office occupancy rates for government departments at just 25 per cent – means it would be a good time to fully move to hybrid working to save money.

Amaechi backs this move: “The cost of the real estate is a really legitimate point. If people aren't going to use real estate, get rid of it,” he said.

Benefits from office work ‘do exist’

However, there are arguments for central workplace usage that many in HR would surely recognise and agree with. A government spokesman has said that office working benefits collaboration and the development of younger and newer staff members. Indeed, Vicki Field, HR director at London Doctors Clinic and independent HR consultant, said that, for many, the office work provides a much-needed social touchpoint or focus reset and, if planned correctly, can result in positive outcomes.

She explained: “Office work can be a good thing. I’d have framed the return-to-office call more positively – I think his approach is passive aggressive; why not a ‘I’d love to see you back’ with a KitKat? – but employers have to take into account an individual's personal timelines.

“People are still worried and we have to optimise office work. If there’s a requirement to be in the office it can’t just be nine-to-five of Zoom calls. Fundamentally, it’s about embracing this brave new world.”

Field adds that as long as good communication and trust are at the hybrid and flexible work, they provide “demonstrable benefits for employer and employee”. Indeed, many HR practitioners have experienced a boost to everything from diverse hiring to improved employer brand thanks to implementation of these working structures.

In fact, the latest CIPD research shows that growing numbers of employers are reporting increased productivity as they embrace home and hybrid working – with figures jumping from a third (33 per cent) saying this in December 2020 to more than two in five (41 per cent) in October/November 2021.

The law and politics of working from home

Yet, Karen Holden, founder of A City Law Firm, says that as long as employers treat all staff equally and don’t discriminate, there is no legal right under current law to demand home or flexible working.

“If the role requires face-to-face operations, meetings or on-site work, that’s essential grounds for the business to deny home working and the only grounds staff can refuse to return is health and safety – otherwise they could be dismissed,” she added.

And, when it comes to civil service and public sector work, Steve Davies, president of the Public Services People Managers Association (PPMA) explains that a decision about returning to the office can include factors outside of usual HR considerations.

“Drivers for asking public service workers to return to working from the office include more political drivers, encouraging staff to identify with the communities they serve and economic drivers to stimulate the local economy by the workforce spending,” he said.

That said, Davies believes that the usual HR metrics are important to ensuring structures of work drive desirable end goals, from both an organisational and individual perspective. “It is not possible or desirable to try a one size fits all approach for the whole organisation,” he adds, suggesting that the best approach is to train managers on how to support their increasingly hybrid, agile and flexible teams.

“It is important to focus on the outcomes or outputs. The objectives and goals are what determine where, when and by whom the work gets done.”