The education system has never been in better shape. The labour market is operating at peak performance. And given that the world has never been more peaceful, it is hardly surprising that our diplomats are concentrating on their yoga classes and bread-making. Indeed, a glance at the Civil Service office attendance figures at the Foreign Office and Departments for Education and for Work and Pensions would suggest that Britain’s bureaucrats have nothing better to do than sit back and let the good times roll.
It’s tempting to laugh, but the figures are genuinely shocking. Only a quarter of officials at Education are at their desks on any given day, 27 per cent at Work and Pensions, and 31 per cent at the Foreign Office. Even the Ministry of Defence only manages 67 per cent attendance. If the greatest military and geo-political crisis since the Second World War doesn’t get people back to the office, it is hard to know exactly what would.
It’s not just the public sector, either. The pandemic has accelerated the rise of a culture of mediocrity, even laziness, dominated by “wellness”, work-life balance, a lack of personal ambition, and of course Working From Home. It has its own false mantras – like the idea that “flexiwork” (or fitting your job around your life, rather than the other way round) is somehow more productive than turning up to work. And it is placing a huge burden on a small minority of productive staff who are still going into the office each day. Until we figure out a way of conquering this noxious trend, it will surely be impossible for the economy or society to recover.
The phenomenon is everywhere. We can see it in the rise of Human Resources departments, or the “People Profession” as it self-importantly now likes to style itself, that have turned into a “Woke Stasi” terrorising every form of organisation. The number of people working in HR has risen by 17 per cent since 2009, and the number of HR managers and directors has grown by 57 per cent. Why? A department that used to be a relative backwater, issuing the pay-slips, and updating the holiday rota, has become a fearsome bureaucracy, staffed by puffed-up pen-pushers from second rate universities, demanding that employee well-being is prioritised over customer service, manufacturing efficiency, and product innovations. They believe that companies exist to serve their staff, rather than their customers.
We can see it in the rise of diversity and inclusiveness training. There is nothing wrong with making sure that minority groups are given as many opportunities as everyone else. But how is that achieved by forcing executives onto expensive courses of highly questionable efficacy? These areas of business have become job-creation schemes for people who have zero interest in profitability but still have taken it on themselves to lecture everyone else.
We can see it as well in the rise of Zoom culture. During lockdown, my then 12-year-old daughter perfected the art of watching Friends on Netflix while attending a geography class by splitting the screen on the iPad. She may not ever know the capital of Argentina, but that will probably be a skill that will take her a long way in whatever career she decides to pursue. Online meetings are only half as good as real ones, with less energy, no chemistry, and hardly any real focus, and which reward clocking in over any actual work.
Britain is plagued by a “coasting culture” in which the vast majority of employees, in whatever kind of organisation, get by with as little effort as possible. Meanwhile, the real innovators, the Elon Musks and the James Dysons of this world, are criticised and denigrated, with a level of vitriol that can only really be explained by the simple fact they show everyone else up.
It’s all the more bizarre because this is happening at precisely the time when the national debt has never been higher, when we are struggling to raise the taxes to pay for public services, and when real wages are falling at an accelerating rate; in short, when we need to work and hustle more, not less. There are no easy fixes to that. But at the very least, we should require the Civil Service to be back at their desks five days a week. If they don’t put in a proper shift, it is hard to see any reason why the rest of mediocre Britain would bother either.