Paul Bristow is the MP for Peterborough and a member of the Commons’ Health and Social Care Select Committee.
For many people, lockdown was tough. It had a huge impact on loneliness, anxiety, and mental health. Even now, most children are only just returning to school and many workplaces sit empty. Financial worries are multiplying for business owners in certain sectors and for the laid-off.
For others, and possibly most, the new normal has been a mixed bag. A small group admit to enjoying it. I can understand this. Working from a comfortable home with no commute is enviable. It is often accompanied by a partner and children.
I was in the mixed-bag category. My father died during lockdown, which I found incredibly difficult, both practically and emotionally. On the other hand, virtual proceedings in Westminster meant I could be at home for the first few months of my new daughter’s life.
I went back to Parliament in June. Now there’s a move to get everyone back to the office, prompting some interesting reactions. In one popular retelling, the Government wants us to regress from the enlightenment of 21st Century flexible working to save a few branches of Pret a Manger.
This caricature misses a far bigger point. It also misses the perspective of those without newspaper columns or well-paid jobs in the media. My own view is that those pushing for permanent working from home, that Brave New World of life-by-Zoom, would unleash a lot of unintended consequences.
We are social animals. Human development relies on learning from others and meeting new people. Our fulfilment and bonding depend on physical proximity to other people, through shared experiences and awareness of countless subtle indicators.
This is overwhelmingly true of our personal lives, but it is also indivisible from most employment. Obviously, it differs by career and personality type. It also differs by stage of career, with those who long since learnt the ropes and have plenty of established relationships being best placed for the new isolationism.
It may seem idyllic to senior and middle managers, who have families, expensive houses and long commutes. Life is less fun for a young graduate, stuck in cramped accommodation with a laptop and no idea what’s going on. I also wonder how long senior managers can maintain their knowledge, contacts, or keep up with staff and procedural changes working from home.
Meritocracy between classes and generations relies on people mixing and networking. Success for most organisations is no different. Neither can succeed for long without the human contact and socialisation that extreme distancing prevents.
We need contact with people who have different life experiences and backgrounds. Different views. People who have read different books, watched different films and who – dare I say it – have different political opinions. Home-working will accelerate a retreat to only understanding those who are already like us, far more dangerously than any Twitter bubble. If you think the liberal, metropolitan elite is already out-of-touch, give it 24-7 life in Islington and see what happens.
As with education, associating with people who aren’t like us spurs success. Going to university and starting a career in London gave me ambition. It made me realise that a state-school kid from Peterborough could achieve anything, with a bit of application. I didn’t have the contacts for prior internships and work experience. I had to learn on the job.
I have no idea how new starters could possibly learn all they need to know via a laptop screen. Even unconsciously, being around others in an office environment helps: how to behave, how things are done, subtexts and subplots, random information, tiny cues, swapping ideas, and knowing the right moment for a question.
More homeworking is now inevitable, but offices need to reopen. If Conservatives believe in anything, it’s the chance to work hard and get on, whatever your background. Gaining experience within a regular office is crucial for social mobility and intergenerational fairness. Even for senior staff, without people learning from you and becoming good at their jobs, life may become more problematic.
Young people at the start of the careers don’t have the contacts and networks to succeed in law, sales, surveying, or a multitude of other professions. They usually live in rented accommodation, either cramped through sharing or cramped because it is small. They don’t have a spare room to use as a study and if their kitchen has a table, it may have two flatmates already sat working at it.
Often it’s the formative years of working long hours and mixing with others that allows people to progress. (Their struggle to own a home in places like London is another column by itself.) Working long hours by themselves, with inadequate support and no demarcation of downtime is no substitute. Those already in senior positions who talk enthusiastically about their new work-life balance seem to have forgotten what they needed themselves, kicking the ladder away having climbed it.
Of course, some things can be done on Zoom or other platforms. A day or two spent working at home, or in the coffee-shops-cum-coworking-spaces that were already proliferating, won’t do much harm. It might have advantages. A bit more flexibility can be welcomed.
But the UK needs to get back to the office. The companies that have announced office closures until 2021 need to rethink their stance. Those hiding behind COVID concerns need to make the necessary changes and reopen. The Prime Minister is right to make this a priority, for reasons that go well beyond the suspended economies of our city centres.
I know commuting is the butt of many jokes. Prior to this crisis, my slog to the office was often the cause of much frustration. It’s time to remember why human contact matters, at work as much as at home.