Jeremy Hunt has said businesses should gradually return to office working being a “default” while speaking at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) conference yesterday (17 May).
While admitting that hybrid working arrangements and the introduction of platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams to aid virtual meetings has had many benefits for UK employees – especially for those with caring commitments and mobility issues – Hunt said he “worries about the loss of creativity” with remote working.
“There is nothing like sitting around a table, seeing people face to face [and] developing team spirit,” he said.
“When people are permanently working from home, [they’re] not having those water cooler moments where they bounce ideas off each other. And not every great business idea happens in a structured form or meeting,” Hunt told BCC delegates.
In future, “I think the default will be you work in the office unless there's a good reason not to be in the office, and gradually we're getting there”, he added.
Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said the pandemic has shown the value of remote working in fostering employee wellbeing and work-life balance without compromising productivity, and it would be a relapse to return to office working as a default. “For many employers, this isn’t about setting a default, but finding the right balance between office and hybrid working that supports people’s productivity and wellbeing, while meeting the needs of the business,” he said.
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“We have the chance to rewrite the rules of how, when and where we work and to roll back on the flexibility gains made in the last few years would be a huge step backwards,” Willmott added.
For many, homeworking has simply become the preferred way of working, Willmott said. This is supported by research from Bloomberg Intelligence (BI), which found that three quarters (73 per cent) of office workers in London that favour hybrid working would leave their current job if this flexibility was taken away.
Susan Munden, senior industry analyst for real estate at BI, said its research indicated that flexible working would remain prevalent for the long term, and while some employers – such as Disney, Goldman Sachs and KPMG – may be encouraging staff back to the office, ”inflation has driven up the cost of transportation, which discourages 67 per cent of respondents” from doing so, she said.
Paul Devoy, CEO of Investors in People, said Hunt was looking at remote and flexible working through a “very narrow lens – especially as his opinions on office work bestows some mythical magic on the office, that I am not sure there is any evidence to back up”.
“I do not remember ever having any memorable work conversation at the water cooler and I’m sure many of the 7.8 per cent of workers who are currently based at home permanently… will tell you that communication remotely can still be upheld, and relationships built virtually,” he stressed.
Equally, Gemma Dale, lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, said Hunt’s comments showed “how out of touch [he] is with the ways that people want to work and how businesses have adapted since Covid”.
“It reiterates a dated and tired metaphor, and ignores the many creative businesses that operate in a remote way,” she said. “The office became a default because there was a time that it was necessary to work in the same place at the same time – but this is no longer true. There are good reasons to come together – but there are also good reasons to work from home, including wellbeing, work-life balance and productivity.”
However, research from Right Management UK on the topic suggested there might be some truth in Hunt’s concerns.
More than a third (38 per cent) of senior business leaders think that remote workers are less likely to spend any time with their senior managers, and a quarter (26 per cent) of senior leaders also believe that hybrid workers are less likely to be considered for a promotion.
“But hybrid working is a culture that exists in its majority and it isn't going anywhere, so we need to adapt and find a compromise,” said Tim Gilbert, managing director of Right Management UK. “We've become accustomed to creating an office in almost any environment so it's not necessarily about where we are based, rather what we're doing and whether the work is getting results.
“It’s also important to note that these concerns about progression, productivity and creativity shouldn’t be viewed through the optics of politicians, senior leaders and managers alone.”
Willmott said it was important to recognise that many frontline workers were unable to work from home. “As well as remote working, employers should consider a range of flexible options that can benefit all their staff, such as flexi-time, compressed and annualised hours, and job sharing," he suggested.