We should have been working from home sooner

By the editor, Mar 25 2020 10:38AM

We need to be cautious in commenting on this crisis, but it is, I hope, uncontroversial that we shouldn't hold back from pointing out clear mistakes, whether that is for learning to deal with a later phase of the crisis, or for dealing with a similar crisis in the future, or for assessing the competence of those taking the decisions at the moment.

One serious mistake, it seems almost certain, was not encouraging people who could work from home to have done so much sooner. Currently, of course, pretty much everyone who can is doing so. But there was a clear opportunity to encourage people several weeks ago, which wasn't taken up.

There's a danger that this issue gets lost as events hurtle on, but it seems to me that the mistake was significant, in terms of the attempt to "flatten the curve", and needs to be noted.

I first tweeted about this on 9 March, when the scale of the crisis was starting to become clear. I work in a public sector organisation, and work from home twice a week. Many in my organisation work from home occasionally too. It was clear then that the whole organisation could operate remotely if needed, possibly with a small minority of staff in the office. My work brings me into contact with those working for Government Departments in Whitehall and elsewhere, and other public sector organisations, which were all in a similar position.

Back in early March, there was a message from the Government that it didn't want to move too soon to enforce social distancing. Whether they got the timing right isn't considered here. I'm interested in why the Government wasn't encouraging people to work from home at an earlier point. What in fact happened was that many private sector organisations started doing this before the Government made any statement about it, during the week beginning 9 March. It was only in the following week that the Government set out its position.

What the Government could easily have done, at least as early as 9 March, but probably much earlier than this, once it was aware that the UK was following Italy's path, was simply tell all public sector workers who could work from home to do so immediately.. This wouldn't have required all such organisations to close their offices. They would have had time to allow more people to work from home, and otherwise prepare for the likely eventual move to remote working for nearly everyone. An alternative, if this had felt too drastic initially, would have been to recommend, rather than require, the same thing - i.e. all organisations should operate on the presumption that anyone who could work from home should do so, without there being an actual requirement.

There are over 5 million public sector workers in the UK. Of course, many of those cannot work from home (including many of those working in the NHS). But a significant minority (working in offices, especially in London) can, and this measure could have stopped several hundred thousand people from going to work each day, for at least an extra week, and probably several weeks, while the virus was taking hold.

If the Government had done this, coupled with a recommendation to all private sector employers to do the same, the effect would in fact have been much greater. As I said, some private sector organisations (such as law firms and other professions, and others working from offices) had already started - but the practice would have been much more widespread had the Government taken the initiative. Even if not motivated by altruism, such organisations would have been under pressure from their employees, and would have been worried about their commercial reputations, if there was a nationwide move towards homeworking, and they were resisting.

It wouldn't have stopped everyone, of course. And some people (like me) were already working from home at least some of the time. But multiply the number of people - likely to be millions - by the number of days, and the total number of additional days individuals would have stayed at home would have been several million. Consider also the typical social interactions that commuting to and working in an office involves: often crowded public transport (for me for example, it's a bus, a train, then a tube, repeated twice), then the day spent working in a air-conditioned building (often open-plan, sharing keyboards, phones, kitchens, toilets), popping out for lunch in a canteen or cafe. These must be close to ideal conditions for the virus to spread. We now understand that it's spread most quickly in London. How much slower might the spread have been if this simple, painless measure had been taken?

There are wider considerations too. Part of the success of the Government's strategy is based on people trusting what it says, being seen as competent, and building consent for its measures. Here is an example of the Government acting too late - following, rather than leading. It doesn't inspire confidence. What other decisions might have been made too late?

So why didn't the Government take this action? I can think of a few potential reasons.

One: there was the worry about moving too fast on social distancing. But as set out above, the Government could have made this a recommendation only at that stage. Working from home does not mean total social isolation. Those who particularly wanted to work in the office could have done so at that point. If anything, a more gradual path to getting people to work from home was likely to have helped over the longer term, as people got used to the idea, had time to order relevant equipment and make other arrangements, and the final move towards mandatory homeworking didn't have to be rushed out in the way it ended up happening.

Two: perhaps the Government was pursuing a "herd immunity" strategy, and didn't want to slow the rate at which the virus spread at this point. I don't know whether this was actually the Government's policy. But even if it was, my understanding is that the Government wasn't at this point actively encouraging the spread of the virus, but rather that it was seeking to delay the point at which the most stringent measures would be implemented to slow it. Hence its "soft" approach at this time - such as encouraging people to wash their hands. Encouraging people to work from home (rather than forcing them to) would have accorded with that strategy..

Three: the Government was worried about a drop in productivity. I suspect this may be something to do with it. There are of course diifficulties working from home - especially, we can find it difficult not seeing colleagues in person, and it's more difficult to manage people, perhaps to the point where some workers are simply not working at all. But it could have been left to the organisations concerned to implement any recommendation to work from home as they saw fit, and the recommendation period concerned was likely to be brief (as it turned out) or it could have been subject to review otherwise. But the main point is that any decrease in productivty was likely to be minimal considering the scale of the developing crisis at that point.

I suspect in fact that there is a linked point, for which I only have anecdotal evidence - my and others' experience of working in several public sector organisations. Those at the top of these organisations usually have no childcare or other caring responsibilities, and despite public professions of enthusiasm for flexible working, are in fact usually ambivalent if not hostile. I can imagine Ministers and Permanent Secretaries, at a particularly difficult time, not liking the idea that many of the staff they rely on might suddenly no longer be around. This may well be why they waited till the last possible moment.

Whatever the reason, it doesn't seem to have been a good one.

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