Rishi Sunak has told young people that going into the office is “really beneficial” to their careers, warning against remote working becoming the default.
The chancellor said that working from home would not have allowed him to build strong, years-long relationships. Ministers recently dropped formal advice to work from home, instead recommending “a gradual return over the summer”.
But a minister has admitted that just 25 per cent of staff in her government department are currently in the office on any one day, as “different people are coming in different days”.
In an interview with LinkedIn News, Sunak discussed a recent visit to Scotland where he met young people starting careers in financial services.
He said: “I was telling them that the mentors I found when I first started my job I still talk to and they have been helpful to me even after we have gone in different ways.
“I doubt I would have had those strong relationships if I was doing my internship or my first bit of my career over [Microsoft] Teams and Zoom.
“That’s why I think for young people in particular being able to physically be in an office is valuable.”
Sunak fronted an ill-fated effort to coax staff back to the office last summer, which was abandoned as a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
The chancellor said: “We’ve kind of stopped saying that people should actively work from home and have now left it up to businesses to figure out the right approach.
“In terms of a return to work . . . in keeping with everything else that we are doing it’s been gradual, it’s cautious, it’s careful, so there will be a gradual return back to the offices.”
On Tuesday morning Gillian Keegan, the skills minister, said the government had “led by example” by getting staff back to Whitehall this summer. But, she added, “probably 20 to 25” per cent of staff are in the office on any one day.
She added that “flexible working will be part of our future,” saying: “As the chancellor said, for young people that is actually quite important to build that social capital and to learn from others, to be part of that working environment in the flesh as opposed to from your bedroom.”
Working patterns have already shifted significantly from the peak of the pandemic. According to the Office for National Statistics suggest that 37 per cent of employees were working solely from home in February. That figure had shrunk to 20 per cent by the end of July.
Home working was most popular among those aged 30 to 49 years – at 45 per cent. Just 34 per cent of those aged between 16 and 29 said they were working from home.
Labour has called for flexible working to become the “new normal” when the pandemic abates.
The party wants the right to flexible working to be made mandatory in all jobs – to ensure that “work fits around people’s lives instead of dictating their lives”.
Angela Rayner, the party’s deputy leader, said the concept would not just be about allowing people to work from home, as they have done to reduce Covid-19 transmissions over the past 16 months, but should also include flexible, compressed, staggered or annualised hours.
The idea is to allow people to spend less time commuting and spend more time with their families in future.
There should be employer leniency around school runs and other family and caring responsibilities, including childcare during school holidays, Rayner – who is also the shadow secretary for the future of work – said.