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The backlash against working from home reached its nadir last week when Jacob Rees-Mogg MP went on a tour of the Cabinet Office posting hand-signed “sorry I missed you” notes on every empty desk. The man whose ludicrous attack on post-pandemic workplace norms earned him the moniker “the honourable member for the 18th century” forgot one crucial detail: the civil service has cut down on wasted office space and doesn’t hold a desk for each member of staff. Of course people are missing in action; Whitehall is designed that way. But they are still in action. They are working.
Rees-Mogg and his obsession with presenteeism is a daft joke for most of us, but the attitudes of those who share his “concern” about hybrid working are more dangerous and insidious. Their implication is that those who want to protect some of the maturity of thought around flexibility, as we emerge from the Covid years, are just lazy oiks enjoying the opportunity to get up 10 minutes before their morning meeting. This is not just insulting but the absolute opposite is true. Most people – especially women – are not enjoying it, but it’s the better of two bad options.
New research published this week has exposed the toll of hybrid working on women in particular. Deloitte found that 47 per cent of women working in the UK say their stress levels are higher than they were a year ago and half feel burned out. In fact, the same proportion (47 per cent) say they intend to leave their employer in the next two years.
The study interviewed women between November 2021 and February this year, so the findings are very current, reflecting the behaviour and feelings of women working in our economy exactly as it is now – and they are very revealing.
Almost half of those questioned said their mental health had become “poor” or “very poor” and their reasons for considering leaving their job included the lack of opportunities to advance and poor work/life balance. Women who have embraced hybrid working have the worst of both worlds. Half say they have been excluded from important meetings and 42 per cent say they feel they don’t have enough time in front of bosses to impress enough to inch their way upwards, but despite that they’re unable to feel any benefits of flexible working either.
The pandemic forced many women to change their working hours to absorb care work alongside paid work. But those who altered their hours or went part-time are now more likely to feel stressed and pessimistic about their career prospects. It’s an exhausting conundrum: they are paid less, employers think they are worth less, Jacob Rees-Mogg thinks they are sitting about in their jim-jams watching Loose Women but they are working harder than ever, deeply frustrated by the situation they find themselves in.
Working from home is not making paid employment a happier, easier part of our lives; it’s making our jobs more stressful. Yet that is still more attractive than endless office hours, long expensive commutes, missing the school drop off, and so on. We’re not enjoying this; it’s lonely, often frustrating, tough on our relationships at home and at work. It’s just that it’s the best that we’ve got – and it’s nowhere near good enough.
Only a third of women interviewed by Deloitte (37 per cent) said their employers offered any kind of flexible working, and only 23 per cent introduced some kind of flex around where and when their staff worked during the pandemic. Almost all (95 per cent) said they felt requesting some flexibility from employers would affect their likelihood of promotion. And they’re right, as the rest of the study exposed.
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What are women to make of this? We’re the most likely to need, very urgently, those small changes to our working lives the pandemic finally made possible (for some). Yet, these shifts aren’t finally opening up possibilities or broadening horizons. They might make the practicalities of our daily lives a bit simpler, but it’s coming at the cost of our long-term employment prospects and mental health. We’re being asked to do more than ever before, with diminishing rewards, and being criticised for it.
The Rees-Moggs of this world view an employee as a purchasable entity, a figure who can give up all else in return for an attractive enough salary and a rewarding job. This outdated model is still based on a pre-1970s view where every adult employee is supported by a “homemaker”, or a housekeeper’s services purchased in lieu of a wife. Society and the workplace has happily moved on, but the structures that underpin the relationship between employer and employee have not.
The post-pandemic era is an opportunity to address the despair in the voices of women. Rees-Mogg doesn’t want us to ask difficult questions. But if you are an employer, a boss, a line manager – particularly if you line manage women – it’s your moral responsibility to ignore that temptation to think he’s right.