Rishi Sunak exclusive: ‘Workers could quit if forced to stay at home’

Workers must be allowed to return to the office or they may “vote with their feet” and quit, the Chancellor has warned. 

Rishi Sunak has declared working from home inferior to convening with colleagues in the workplace, which fosters “meetings that happen by chance” and “people riffing off each other”.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, he urged companies that have benefitted from the pandemic, collectively amassing cash reserves of more than £100 billion, to embark on an investment and hiring spree to fuel the economic recovery.

Throwing his support behind physical workplaces, he said: “You can’t beat the spontaneity, the team building, the culture that you create in a firm or an organisation from people actually spending physical time together.”

This was particularly crucial for young people, who needed to gain a feel for their company, get to know colleagues, and seek out mentors to aid career development, he stressed.

Insisting it was “important that we try and get back to a good degree of that”, he warned firms that axed their offices altogether that staff might “vote with their feet” and defect to competitors who offered a desk and allow in-person attendance.

a group of people standing in front of a building: A smattering of commuters cross London Bridge during evening rush hour. The Chancellor underlined the importance of workers being allowed to return to their jobs in city centres© Provided by The Telegraph A smattering of commuters cross London Bridge during evening rush hour. The Chancellor underlined the importance of workers being allowed to return to their jobs in city centres

He acknowledged, however, that the improvement in platforms such as Zoom meant there should be “some extra flexibility” for those who wanted to continue working remotely. He said hybrid models could be suitable for some businesses and staff.

Last week, the newspaper group Reach said that 75 per cent of its employees would become entirely or mainly home-based after the pandemic.

Other firms are opting for flexible set-ups. Nationwide has said its staff will be able to choose where they work, while BP will ask employees to work from home two days a week.

Mr Sunak’s intervention illustrates the strength of feeling in Government about the importance of staff returning to the workplace and pouring back into city centres.

A date for the Government to lift its guidance for Britons to “work from home” where possible is absent from Boris Johson’s roadmap out of lockdown, however. It is a major question at the centre of a Cabinet Office review on the future of social distancing.

In the interview at a fringe event for the Tory Spring conference, hosted by iNHouse Communications, the Chancellor exhorted businesses that had built up a savings stockpile in the past year to inject it into the economy to fuel a bounceback.

The “super deduction”, a tax cut for firms that invest, which was unveiled in the Budget this month, is aimed at trying to “unlock some of that money and say, ‘Look, now’s the time, guys, don’t sit on your hands”, he said.

Mr Sunak added: “If you’ve got the cash, invest it now, because we want you to do it now and help drive our recovery and that will create jobs in the process.”

Mr Sunak’s latest Budget will see the UK’s debt burden rising to its highest level since the Sixties, the Treasury’s independent forecaster has warned. He conceded he had been forced to do “difficult things on tax”, but stressed: “It’s important ultimately that we pay our way in the world.”

While economic uncertainty in the wake of the Covid crisis made it “hard to speculate about the future with any precision”, he vowed to keep taxes “as low as possible”.

Mr Sunak’s work on tax reform continues and he said he hoped to set out a new regime for alcohol duty by the end of the year, which was poised to even out disparities between duty levels on spirits, wine and beer.

Boosting women in the workplace was another priority, he said, as he paid tribute to this newspaper’s “Women Mean Business” initiative, branding it “a great campaign”.

“My mother is a small businesswoman – she ran her own pharmacy –  and I have two girls, so this is something that’s important to me in particular,” he added.

Now that more than a third of FTSE 350 board positions are filled by women, he said he wanted to think about “what is the next step”.

As the economy recovered from the pandemic, he added that it was important to recognise that women had been “disproportionately dealing with difficulties around kids, school, childcare, career” during the past year.

Representing the seat of Richmond in Yorkshire, Mr Sunak also impressed his commitment to levelling up the North and Midlands, saying: “I have a northern constituency, and I’m a northern chancellor”.

He went on: “What I see when I’m out and about and I’m campaigning in places across County Durham and the Tees Valley or new constituencies that we won for the first time in a long time [in 2019], that informs my politics and informs me doing this job.”

The Chancellor praised retired health workers who had enlisted as vaccinators in recent months, revealing that his own father, a retired GP, was among them.

“He’s jabbing away and he’s loving it… He’s saying that the vibe, the camaraderie amongst the people that he’s working with and volunteering with, is fantastic,” he said.

Asked about being dubbed “Dishy Rishi” by fans, he said the nickname was “lovely and flattering”, but claimed his wife “remains ever puzzled by it”.

He dismissed any suggestion other ministers may be envious, insisting: “They’re a good-looking bunch, this Cabinet.”

Turning to the subject of his wealth, he was unapologetic, declaring: “I am who I am, but remember, think back where I came from.”

He cited his Indian grandparents migrating to Britain “from very different circumstances” in East Africa, and said his parents had “sacrificed an enormous amount” to fund his education at the public school Winchester College.

Reflecting on his past career, which included working for investment bank Goldman Sachs and then for a major hedge fund, he said: “I’ve been really fortunate to love, professionally, doing something that also means if you’re good at it, you earn good money. I don’t think that’s something to be embarrassed about.”

He continued: “I think that’s something we should celebrate for everyone… What our job is, though, is to make sure as many people as possible have access to all those opportunities, and as much as we can possibly give everyone that shot at doing what they want to do.”

In step with legions of Britons who have bought a pet during lockdown, Mr Sunak and his wife are mulling over getting a labrador. It follows intense lobbying from his two daughters, who have become fond of their Downing Street neighbours’ dog, Dilyn.


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