Tuesday, 3 August 2021

Rishi Sunak's Return to Work Drive

The hype about the death of the office didn't last long. With the removal of virtually all Covid precautions, the return to work for millions of employees is underway. Though, just like last year, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has stuck his oar in to punt the process along. Reported in The Times, Dishy Rishi affects concern for young people at the start of their careers. Wistfully recalling his start at Goldman Sachs, he's worried new starters won't get the chance to schmooze 'n' booze their way up the corporate hierarchy and build the networks that will serve them for life. "That's why I think for young people in particular being able to be physically in an office is valuable", he concludes.

I'm not about to totally rubbish Sunak here. From the standpoint of Tory politics, he has a point. Across corporate life management has to reproduce themselves, and this is always more than being diligent, getting the work done, and pulling in extra sales. Recruitment into management strata is a process of having the right values and, crucially, being able to play the game. In Sunak's pre-parliament world, having front, being able to leverage networks to broker deals, making new connections, getting talked about, displays of hunger and drive on top of an appearance of competence is what is prized. And all this has to be seen. Stuck at home trading stocks from laptops and getting clients up on Zoom makes the everyday interaction managerial reproduction depends on much more difficult.

Having opined on this matter on several occasions since last summer, Sunak has also talked about "the buzz" people are missing from the office. As one of those weird academics who likes going into work for this reason, I know what he means. But this concern for the disappearance of the social side of seeing colleagues betrays another anxiety. As argued here many times, capitalist exploitation in the age of immaterial labour, where the bulk of work has shifted from producing goods to the production of services, information, care and, in some cases, people, has changed. This is work dependent on social competencies, and so being able to build networks and accumulate contacts is an avenue through which the sorts of firms Sunak has in mind do business and accumulate capital. But also, there is a role played by the serendipitous. Collaborations at work, even chance meetings can create the germ of an idea which can be harnessed for the organisation's benefit. Just think about the fab 'n' groovy workplaces that were all the rage prior to Covid with the soft furnishings, hang out zones, and in some cases (adult) soft play areas and games. If the brain is the primary force of production in the age of cognitive capitalism and capital is poised to capture and monetise the new knowledge they produce, they need to be on its premises to maximise potentially profitable encounters. This informs everything about the immaterial workplace, especially for relatively privileged workers and professions. Communal areas, open plan offices, up to and including received city planning wisdom about clustering cognate businesses are designed to facilitate in-person connectivity. Like most Tories and their relationships to their class interests, Sunak knows this instinctively and shows it in what appear innocuous expressions of his common sense.

There are other reasons why the Tories want to see a drift back to the office. A significant bloc of Tory support have capital tied up in business lets and speculative construction - the longer the great workplace stayaway persists, the longer those investments remain unrealised with consequences for the bottom line of the petty and the institutional investor. Not a few small and medium businesses depend on the passing trade of workers as well, the proprietors of whom are undoubtedly disproportionately Tory voters. And then there is the other chief concern the Tories have. Some on the government benches will find Sunak's talk of office conviviality a bit airy-fairy, but what worries them the most is the loosening of the norms of workplace discipline. No one hates British workers more than the party who has governed this country the longest, and for them the return to work can't happen soon enough. They need the firm hand of the working day to whip the hoi polloi into shape, and not get ideas questioning the employer's absolute right to encroach onto their free time, or even worse getting up to other kinds of mischief without management having an eye on things. It's one reason why Sunak was very keen to undermine the job retention scheme barely after it had begun.

From the beginning, the Tories have managed the politics of the pandemic with some skill, which is why they think they can get away with letting Covid rip. Contrast this with the nuts and bolts handling of Coronavirus. It has proven itself disastrous, and this is because of the clash of sectional bourgeois interests inside the party. The PPE trough, the delayed lockdowns, the decision to open universities, and sustaining the petty tyrannies underpinning the wage relation conflict with the wider interest of capital to have a fit and healthy workforce - a point of view previously associated with Matt Hancock but not shared by his successor.

Tory governments tend toward hubris. With Sunak encouraging the return to work, winding down furlough and other business support schemes, his close association with pretending normality while the delta variant is alive and well - 22,000 infections and 138 deaths in the last reporting period - could cause him severe reputational damage if the Tory gamble with our health turns into a catastrophe. No Dishy Rishi in Number 10,. Unfortunately, all we're left with is the hope that thwarting his ambitions doesn't come at the cost of thousands of unnecessary deaths blocking his path to the door.

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Anonymous said...

I was on a teams meeting recently with a company big wig and most of the questions fired at him were from people concerned by the return to work. While there was a split between those who said we have to start living with this (like it’s been 20 years and not 2 since the outbreak!), the majority were genuinely concerned.

To be fair the bigwig said things along the lines of, if you have concerns we can discuss, there are hybrid options etc etc.

I think the left fail to understand what a huge class issue this is and too often they appear to fall down on the side of the bosses and against the employees (if employee and boss is the correct 21st century description!).

Working from home should be number 1 on the new manifesto of the workers party! Well maybe number 3 or 4.

Graham said...

How many workers does this actually affect ?

For those who are not "immaterial workers" - those working in transport, distribution, retail, care, NHS, school teachers, construction, farming, manufacturing, i.e. the material economy, working from home has not been an option during the pandemic.

BCFG said...

"How many workers does this actually affect ?"

Millions, for example, I know public sector workers who can work from home are doing so. That is a large chunk of the working population.

Also it affects anyone married/living with someone who works from home.

Add onto this that it reduces congestion on the roads and provides more space on public transport for those who cant work from home, then I would say just about everybody is affected by this.

I should also correct Graham when he says teachers could not work from home, computer technology allows for remote schooling.

So, yes this is a huge and growing issue and those who can work from home should be made to. This should be enshrined in law.

It should also be a goal to get as many people working from home as is reasonable and appropriate.