Return to offices and end of home working is key if young people are to advance careers – Jayne Dowle

RISHI Sunak speaks sense when he tells young people that going into work is the best thing they can do to advance their careers and gain valuable life skills.

Now that it is deemed safe to go back to the office, remote working should not become the norm, said the Chancellor during an interview with networking organisation LinkedIn.

The message was clear. Sitting at home in your pyjamas gets you nowhere. Being in the workplace, he added, enabled him to build “strong relationships” with his early mentors, some of whom he still speaks to today. “That’s why I think, for young people in particular, being able to physically be in an office is valuable.”

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And he should know. The young Rishi took his first steps into the world of work as a waiter in a Southampton curry restaurant. Later, he enjoyed a glittering career in City finance, before succeeding William Hague as Richmond’s MP in 2015.

How can a return to office working be encouraged and fostered?

I’ll put my cards on the table. I’ve worked from home for almost 20 years now, but I made that decision when my children were small. And for half this time, I juggled homeworking with teaching in a university.

I’ve also had a number of short-term contracts where I’ve spent time in an office or other co-working environment, including a gallery and a museum.

Working from home suits my circumstances – especially as I now have a dog to look after and my husband leaves the house at 7am – but at least three times a week I yearn for the cut and thrust of office politics, the banter, the jokes and the sheer buzz of bouncing off other people. It’s lonely, a lot of the time.

Like Mr Sunak, I still keep in contact with people from my very first job in journalism. I’m sure our valuable relationships wouldn’t have stood the test of time without the bonding experiences we shared.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

And what if you don’t have a choice? Many friends in frontline services and teaching, for instance, have been compelled to clock on whatever the circumstances during the pandemic. Those people fretting about whether it’s safe to return to work should perhaps speak to a paramedic or a police officer about their experience of the last 18 months.

Still, I remember the days when ‘home working’ was looked down upon as the last resort of the semi-skilled and barely committed. I became used to the pitying looks from contacts and remote colleagues.

The pandemic changed all that, obviously. Zoom calls replaced in-person meetings and suddenly millions of people had the freedom to set their own hours and work in their pyjamas if they so wished.

It worked, if you excuse the pun. A recent YouGov study found that 47 per cent of adults think businesses shouldn’t be encouraging staff to return to the office.

However, it’s twice as hard, and I speak from experience, to make your mark – and keep making your mark – when you’re sitting at home.

I say this to my 18-year-old son, Jack, who is trying to lay down the basis of his dream career in sports broadcasting. He’s applying for internships and so on, but the pandemic came at a crucial time for him and his college classmates.

Like hundreds of thousands of UK students, they spent the last months of their course studying remotely, sitting in the bedrooms in front of a screen.

His work ethic isn’t the problem – Jack has had a part-time job in a supermarket for two years and before that, like Mr Sunak, worked as a waiter. He’s just missing a vital tool of preparation.

He follows bloggers and influencers who clearly have never set foot in an office or major broadcasting studio in their life. And it’s tempting for him to assume that this path is equally possible for all.

I gently point out that learning to work alongside other people, having ideas challenged (and sometimes rejected) and self-indulgences curbed is a valuable lesson that will make him a better operator.

However, we should be grateful that the pandemic put paid to the corrosive culture of presenteeism, where a jacket on the back of a chair staked a claim.

There is a way forward. In many cases, employers and employees would both benefit from a ‘hybrid’ way of working, where days at home combine effectively with days in the workplace. Our young people could become the pioneers, paving the way for a more personalised way of working that would also improve mental health and wellbeing. For it to be a success, they must find a way to take the first tentative step back to work.

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