Chancellor slammed for concerns about losing ‘water cooler moments’ to remote work

Hunt: UK business must close the productivity gap
Hunt: UK business must close the productivity gap

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has suggested the office should be the “default” for workers as he’s concerned about the creativity lost in permanent remote work.

Speaking at the British Chambers of Commerce’s Global Annual Conference 2023 on Wednesday he said employers should decide their own approach to hybrid work.

However, as reported by the BBC, he added: "The default will be you work in the office unless there's a good reason not to be in the office.

"I worry about the loss of creativity when people are permanently working from home and not having those water cooler moments, where they bounce ideas off each other.

"I think that's why businesses are saying they want people back unless there's a reason."

Creativity in a hybrid world:

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Gemma Dale, author, senior HR professional and lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, said the chancellor’s comments are dated.

Building on topics discussed in her interview for the HR Most Influential Podcast, Dale told HR magazine: “These comments are disappointing but not at all surprising. The chancellor is relying on outdated beliefs; the water cooler metaphor is tired and overused.

“There is simply no reason for the office to continue to be a default; this dates back to an era where work had to be undertaken in the same time and at the same place but this is no longer true."

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD said Hunt’s comments also ignore the gains businesses have made through remote work.

He said: “Office environments provide valuable opportunities for collaboration, learning and social interaction, but the pandemic has also demonstrated the value of remote working in fostering employee wellbeing, and work/life balance, without compromising on productivity.

The effectiveness of remote work has been the subject of public debate since the pandemic created the necessity for many people to work from home.

In April 2022, cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg made headlines for decrying remote work in the civil service.

Now Covid-19 is contained, the leaders of some large businesses, including Goldman Sachs’ CEO David Solomon and Elon Musk when he took over Twitter, have mandated employees return to offices five days a week.

Other companies, like Apple, that had previously been more generous with their remote work policy have also rolled it back to encourage people to come into the office more frequently.

Willmott added: “For many employers, this isn’t about setting a default but finding the right balance between office and hybrid working that supports people’s productivity and wellbeing, while meeting the needs of the business.”

Encouraging creativity is often used as an argument for returning to the office, however others argue that innovation can be achieved in other ways.

Dale added: “I would be interested to see the evidence on which the chancellor bases his belief that remote work leads to a loss of creativity.”

Similarly, Chris Moore, European president at cloud computing company Veeva Systems, argued presenteeism alone does not lead to productivity.

He said: “Instead, it comes from employees deciding where they work best on any given day. People want to be productive for themselves, their teams, and their customers.

“We need to trust and empower them to decide how best to make that happen. In the great companies, employee autonomy will prevail because it is a key ingredient to engagement and innovation.”

The chancellor conceded that some opportunities had been created through remote work, specifically citing how it can help parents with childcare and those with mobility issues.

Yet, Dale added: “I would further note that he perpetuates other unhelpful stereotypes with the comment that flexible working is for people with mobility issues and childcare – flex is something that everyone wants and can benefit from.”

Following a consultation by the government, UK workers are set to earn the right to request a flexible working arrangement, of which remote work is one option, from their first day of employment.

Willmott warned against a regression on the positive progress that has been made toward more flexibility at work in the UK, for all kinds of employees.

He said: “We have the chance to re-write the rules of how, when and where we work and to roll back on the flexibility gains made in the last few years would be a huge step backwards.

“While protecting flexibility to work from home where appropriate, it’s important to recognise that many workers in frontline roles don’t have this option. As well as remote working, employers should consider a range of flexible options that can benefit all their staff, such as flexi-time, compressed and annualised hours, and job sharing."


Hear more from Gemma Dale on solving the hybrid working conundrum in her HR Most Influential Podcast appearance, available here.