Is the prime minister right about the importance of office culture?

As Boris Johnson renews his claims people are more productive in the workplace, People Management looks at whether it’s time to start calling staff back

Credit: Andrew Matthews/AFP/Getty Images

Over the weekend Boris Johnson once again reiterated his scepticism about the benefits of remote working.

In an interview with the Daily Mail, the prime minister said he was a believer in “the workplace environment”, adding that returning employees to the office would “help to drive up productivity, it will get our city centres moving in the weekdays and it will be good for mass transit.”

“There will be lots of people who disagree with me, but I believe people are more productive, more energetic, more full of ideas, when they are surrounded by other people,” he said.

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Johnson is not the only one from the government keen to see employees back in the workplace: cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg left notes on the desks of those working remotely saying "sorry you were out when I visited" last month. When challenged with a survey that found 85 per cent of people think they are as or more efficient when working from home during ITV's Peston last week, Rees-Mogg said respondents were lying.

So is it time for employers to start pushing for staff to be in the workplace more of the time? Gemma Dale, author and lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, suggests not. “There is a growing and compelling body of evidence that people are at least as productive as they are in the office, if not more so, when working remotely,” she says.

Dale acknowledges that there are good reasons for employees to come together in person, but “it does not have to be the default,” she says, arguing HR professionals should challenge narratives against working from home if they develop in their own organisations and use evidence that proves it to be false.

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Similarly, CIPD research shows that productivity continues to climb as employers embrace home and hybrid working. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach for organisations and they need to develop practices that work for their business context and their employees,” says Claire McCartney, resourcing and inclusion adviser for the professional body.

McCartney advises employers to consult staff and work out solutions that wherever possible meet employees’ needs without compromising the needs of the business. Employers that fail to offer greater flexibility are likely to struggle to attract and retain staff, she warns, particularly in such a tight labour market.

This was echoed by Amy Butterworth, head of consultancy at Timewise, who warns firms could “close the door” on many members of staff – including those who are older, people with caring responsibilities and those managing their mental and physical health – by denying them flexible working arrangements. “Nine in 10 people want flexibility in their next job. You can’t force the rabbit back into the hat,” Butterworth said. “It’s time to look forward and build a better, fairer working world,” she says.

There is clearly a middle ground to be had, added Anthony Painter, director of policy for the Chartered Management Institute. But, he said: “Hybrid working requires more deliberate thought and practice. The signs are that the much-feared hit to productivity didn't materialise [and] with smart management it is entirely plausible that the best employers will get the best of both worlds out of both remote and office working."