DIGBY JONES: Plans for ‘work from home for ever’ will drag Zombie Britain back to the 1970s

Covid has already done incalculable damage to British business and society, so I despair at news that a leaked document reveals Government plans to give employees a huge nudge towards working from home.

If office workers are given the right to so-called ‘flexible working’, our town and city centres will die, local tax revenues will evaporate, transport systems will collapse and productivity will fall.

We will revert to the enervating era of the British disease of the 1970s, of low ambition and absence of national self-confidence, of underinvestment and industrial unrest.

DIGBY JONES (pictured): ‘If office workers are given the right to so-called “flexible working”, our town and city centres will die’

The worst thing is that we are currently squandering the great advantage we gained with the Government’s one undisputed Covid success – our brilliantly efficient vaccination programme.

We risk becoming a zombie nation that no longer functions as a vibrant, essential destination for international capital and foreign visitors.

The document also suggests the Government has covert plans to maintain restrictions that will inhibit the workings of theatres and restaurants and other attractions that brought visitors to our great cities.

It is remarkable how once government takes powers away from its citizens, it proves so reluctant to hand them back.

London is the capital of the world – and I say that as a proud Brummie – but it will lose this crown if we do not put Covid restrictions firmly behind us.

In theory, the idea of working from home, without the stress and cost of commuting into an office, is alluring.

In theory, the idea of working from home, without the stress and cost of commuting into an office, is alluring

In theory, the idea of working from home, without the stress and cost of commuting into an office, is alluring

But I say to those who found during lockdown that they enjoy working on the sofa in a tracksuit: be careful what you wish for. If the Government succumbs to pressure from its scientific advisors and the trade unions to legislate for the right to ‘hybrid working’ – as the document suggests might happen – it will be an absolute catastrophe for business performance and will lay a legal minefield.

Younger staff living in crowded flats would mostly choose to go to the office to escape domestic stress.

Senior staff with larger houses and gardens may prefer to remain at the dining room table.

That sounds eminently reasonable, until you consider what happens when management wants to promote one of the younger staff over someone working from home.

For employment lawyers, it will be as though all their Christmases have come at once. Lawsuits will fly, claiming discrimination and constructive dismissal.

Home-based employees who missed the promotion will complain that staff at the office have exploited this to improve relations with bosses and they have been unequally treated.

Of course, the disgruntled will have a point: that is exactly what happens in offices where ambitious, capable staff catch the eye of management and also come up with new ideas in the way you cannot do in a Zoom meeting.

London is the capital of the world ¿ and I say that as a proud Brummie ¿ but it will lose this crown if we do not put Covid restrictions firmly behind us

London is the capital of the world – and I say that as a proud Brummie – but it will lose this crown if we do not put Covid restrictions firmly behind us

These lawsuits will be very difficult and expensive for companies to defend. For many businesses, whose reserves are already diminished by 15 months of restrictions, it might be the final nail in the coffin.

And it raises a further problem. In offices and factories, the new employees learn by watching and listening. How can you learn how to manage people or to handle personal situations you only see on a video screen?

How can businesses innovate and inspire their staff on a video call? I fear in time it will lead to a drastic decline in productivity.

It is worrying that only one-third of British employees went straight back to the office after the first lockdown, half the rate seen in much of the EU.

We mock the French for their antediluvian working practices, but 83 per cent of them were back in the office within a month, according to one survey.

As we are so far ahead of Europe in vaccinations, our workforce should be flooding back to the office but because of muddled, alarmist signals from the government and their scientific advisers, the British worker is cowering at home unnecessarily.

Meanwhile, the micro-business ecology of our big cities and towns – the restaurants, bars, sandwich shops, the taxi drivers, the shoe repairers – are closing down, many permanently.

For employers, home working offers an immediate saving in costs of office space.

This is why so many businesses were quick to embrace the trend when there was no option but to keep their staff at home. But my experience of engaging with British businesses tells me they will regret this short-term thinking.

For employees, this new ‘right’ to flexible working will also prove to be a poisoned chalice. The finance director will soon be asking managers why they are paying good salaries to employees who are never seen in the office.

He will say he knows of a start-up that specialises in outsourcing clerical jobs to, say, Vietnam, where people will cheerfully work for one-tenth of a UK salary.

It is very easy to see how this process becomes a very slippery slope. Once the God of IT-remote takes hold it doesn’t matter where the people at the end of the screen connection are.

We can be sure that the public sector will be most enthusiastic about embracing home working because advancement tends to work on time served rather than ambition displayed.

This will have a disproportionately devastating impact on northern cities such as Liverpool and Newcastle with large public sector payrolls. These vibrant city centres will never recover if the Government presses on with this ruinous policy.

In the course of my own business dealings, I have twice had to seek a decision from local or central government departments in the past 18 months. In each case I was told this would be seriously delayed ‘due to Covid’.

This absolutely puts the lie to the notion that the public sector can work from home as effectively as in government departments. The civil servants who should have been engaged were all sitting at home on full salary, building up pension entitlement, yet seemingly not working as efficiently as at the office.

I cannot be the only person who has noticed that the standards of remotely provided customer service have deteriorated during the pandemic. This suggests a loss of efficiency across the entire private sector too.

This defeatism is particularly disappointing as I know Boris Johnson to be at heart a libertarian and a risk taker, but he seems to have become cowed by a bunker mentality in Downing Street.

Ultimately, scientists can advise but maintaining lockdown restrictions must be political decisions, based on a wider reckoning of the country’s economic performance and mental and physical health.

To be clear, I am not some anti-lockdown zealot. It might make sense to continue wearing masks for a few months on public transport. People should take extra care when going into a hospital, care home or crowded space.

My own mum died of Covid in May last year, so I certainly do not underestimate nor dismiss lightly the human consequences of this pandemic.

But I despair at the thought of the grim New Normal laid out in the leaked document.

This is a recurring nightmare: of permanent social distancing between vaccinated people, of sealed borders, of official advice that allows people with a hangover to pull the duvet over their head and tell the office they are exercising their right to work from home.

The whole point about the Thatcher reforms of the 1980s, and of Brexit, was to make us an innovative and self-confident economy. Globalisation was made for our country. We are not some frightened, protectionist state like France.

But if we are to be true to our ambition we have to learn to live with Covid. So-called Zero Covid is simply not an option. New variants will continue to reach our shores, for a long time to come, maybe for ever.

As a boy I would ask mum, who was 96 when she died, how she got through the bombing in Birmingham during the Blitz. She said: ‘We just got on with it, dear.’

That is what we have to do today. Because if we do not, we are doomed to a fearful future in an inward looking society, without the prospect of prosperity or joy.

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