As part of the removal of Plan B restrictions, the edict to “work from home if possible” was dropped last week – and not before time. “WFH” has entered the language as shorthand for a phenomenon deemed necessary at the height of the pre-vaccination pandemic, but which no longer has any public health justification.
For millions of people working in shops, driving vans, manning factories or running businesses where a physical presence is essential, WFH has never been an option. Others mainly in sectors such as law and banking were able to stay away from the office, meeting remotely when necessary. New technology has facilitated WFH in a way that would not have been possible only 10 years ago.
Many of these employees are expected to start returning in numbers this week to the relief of city centre restaurants, cafés and bars that rely on their trade, though the pandemic looks likely to have killed off the old five-day week.
But one group remains stubbornly resistant to a return to the office: civil servants. Steve Barclay, Minister for the Cabinet Office, has written to every Whitehall permanent secretary informing them that now the WFH requirement has been lifted “every desk should be filled”.
Yet it is apparent that some departments will only expect staff to come in for three days a week at most. Many are being allowed to WFH permanently. There are anecdotal reports that officials have moved so far from London during the pandemic they can no longer commute every day.
Managers say WFH does not affect the productivity or effectiveness of public sector employees. But the rest of us who are their customers and pay their salaries beg to disagree.