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Will Rees-Mogg turn back clock on flexible working?

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s appointment as secretary of state has caused consternation on many fronts. Dubious climate credentials aside, his ideas about what makes a good boss mean his appointment has been greeted with dismay by everyone who understands that work today is different from the 1950s.

For 25 years his predecessors have established legislative foundations on which employers have created more effective and productive ways of working, especially around flexible working. Legislation doesn’t drive culture but what legislators say, how they use their platform, is influential.

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Whoever has filled this role over the past 25 years, there has almost always been a sense of looking for opportunity, of being open to new ways of working.

From New Labour’s Stephen Byers and Patricia Hewitt through to the coalition’s Vince Cable and the Conservative’s Greg Clark, advances were made around flexibility and around parental rights.

There was collaboration with business to test and develop the new ways of working. There were visionary initiatives, such as the Taylor Review, which set out recommendations to improve the rights and conditions for people who want or need to work outside the traditional nine-to-five, and the joint industry/government Flexible Working Taskforce, set up to examine the case for default flexibility.

Arguably this paid off in 2020. UK business surprised itself with its preparedness to move to fully remote working. Targets were still met.

And now expectations have changed. Millions of employees have experienced greater autonomy. They do not all want to continue being home based: only around one fifth would like to work fully from home. Another fifth want to be fully in the office, with the remaining 60% looking for something hybrid. Office-based workers now expect to be given greater choice about their place of work.

But Jacob Rees-Mogg is the kind of boss who says: “I don’t know what you are doing if I can’t see you”. He needs to understand that any problems he has with motivation or performance are therefore on him.

In contrast, leaders who have high-performing teams and businesses are clear about what has to be done, by when and to what standard; and then give as much control and choice as they can. The result is happier staff, who perform better.

A survey of 1,000 office workers by social business Flexibility Works showed the importance of autonomy.

Those whose employer imposes fewer restrictions or requirements feel more consulted, are happier and, crucially, come into the office more. All excellent outcomes for their employers.

The manager can always say no when someone wants to work flexibly or from home – which is what Jacob Rees-Mogg is doing – but they need to say that on the basis of good evidence. Just saying, it’s “no, because I want it to be the way it used to be", is not the mark of a good or effective business leader.

I imagine there are many senior managers in the civil service today who are in despair, thinking about the impact this will have on morale and on staff retention.

And many business people outside Whitehall, looking to fill vacancies and manage skills shortages, rubbing their hands with glee: the head-hunters will be opening their contact books and scouring LinkedIn for likely candidates.

If you are competing for talent, you have to offer hybrid. For the civil service, which needs the best people but can’t pay top dollar, offering flexibility around where people work is really important.

This matters, not just because we depend on a high-performing civil service, but because as secretary of state for business Jacob Rees-Mogg’s views and his messages are heard by managers and workers.

Every manager who is encouraged to try to turn back the clock because Jacob Rees-Mogg says that presence is more important than any other factor, every business that reverts to command and control management, is another nail in the coffin of the UK’s productivity and trade gap.

Sarah Jackson is visiting professor at Cranfield University School of Management