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Remote work or back to the office? The government just picked the wrong side of this argument

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The government has decided it really wants workers back at their desks – and now.

Government agency ministers have been told to encourage a “rapid return to the office” because of the benefits of “collaborative face-to-face working”, according to Dispatches. They even received a list showing which departments sent the most — and the least — staff back to the office.

This is a strange position on the part of the government.

Britain’s civil service has long been accused of being far too concentrated in central London, and Whitehall has been an administrative center for centuries. It made sense in the past, but more and more civil servants no longer need to be grouped around Parliament.

TO SEE: Remote work vs office life: Lots of experiences and no easy answers

Over the past two decades, successive governments have completely moved large chunks of government departments out of London.

It’s a good idea; these are jobs that can be done from anywhere, thanks to modern technologies. They’re also high-paying, high-skilled roles, meaning they boost local economies – and London is strong enough not to miss them.

On top of that, breaking out of the “Westminster bubble” can give civil servants a better and broader perspective – and perhaps also provide a better work-life balance.

Much of this thinking applies to remote work as well. It is therefore not surprising that the head of a civil service union called the decision vindictive and demoralizing.

“The government, which was actually at the forefront of flexible working, is looking like Luddites, while the rest of the economy is embracing hybrid working,” said FDA Secretary General Dave Penman.

The government is also out of step with what is happening in the wider economy. Businesses have spent a lot of time over the past two years thinking about the future of work and the future of their office spaces.

Some have eliminated it completely, others have reinvented it as a place for teamwork (or just for a free lunch). Many have adopted a hybrid working approach.

None of these developments are without challenges, of course.

TO SEE: The Future of Work: How Everything Has Changed and What’s Next

But it’s clear that staff will welcome attempts to redesign the workweek that give them the flexibility to decide how to be most productive.

Employers who refuse to offer this flexibility are most likely to see their staff join the big quit wave.

So what about the government’s desire to bring its employees back to the office? It’s unclear what he thinks the benefits will be beyond a mention in a letter to ministers of “wider benefits to the economy”.

There are undoubtedly benefits to working as a team in an office: it can be good for morale, for innovation and for helping people learn from each other. Today’s online tools simply cannot replace all of that.

But it is also possible to argue that flexible working will create real “wider benefits for the economy”.

And when you face government-wide, the decisions you make about how hundreds of thousands of employees work can have huge implications, from pollution, because remote workers travel less, to the impact on the main street. It may be a good thing to spend money in your neighborhood and not in the center of a city. More remote working means smaller, cheaper offices – which should be of interest to a government keen to balance the books. And it can open up roles to people who otherwise couldn’t take them.

TO SEE: “Finding a balance”: How one company is reimagining the office for hybrid working

In reality, there’s more than a whiff of politics to this demand for workers back in the office, the implication being that remote work isn’t really work — a conceit that plays on the Conservatives’ electoral base. .

But forcing workers back into the office is unlikely to make government more efficient: it will likely make it harder to attract and retain top talent, and will likely do more harm than good.

ZDNet’s Monday morning opener is our first tech release of the week, written by members of our editorial team. We are a global team, so this editorial is published Mondays at 8:00 a.m. AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00 p.m. Eastern on Sundays in the US and 11:00 p.m. in London.

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