The Prime Minister of England is not a great fan of working from home. We know this, because in a recent interview, he said so. Boris Johnson said, “My experience of working from home is you spend an awful lot of time walking very slowly to the fridge, hacking off a small piece of cheese, then walking very slowly back to your laptop.”

While the “workers don’t get anything done, they just drink coffee and eat cheese,” captured the headlines, the interview was interesting for a couple of other reasons. Many of the Prime Minister’s points were lost in the ensuing hilarity. Here’s a little deeper look at what he actually meant to say, however unartfully.

Will working from home work kill cities?

Cities like London (and New York, and San Francisco) depend on people coming into the city to work or living in dense communities. The long-term impact of everything from commercial real estate to hotel taxes and transit costs is still unknown, but city leaders around the world are terrified of the consequences of reduced activity in the major cities. The mayor of Seattle recently all but begged people to come back to work downtown for the same reasons.

Can workers really be trusted?

Many conservative leaders (and to be fair, a high percentage of the general public around the world) have a natural mistrust of the public sector’s work ethic and ability to work unsupervised. There are plenty of reasons for this, some reasonable, some less so. Part of it is just the belief that government workers don’t work as hard as their private sector cohorts and if left unsupervised, that only becomes truer. A recent survey of US federal employees who began working from home during COVID shows a different picture.  While teleworking during the pandemic, 62% of respondents said their productivity increased by “a lot,” while 17% said their productivity increased by “a little.” Another 17% said their productivity did not change, and just 4% of respondents said their productivity declined.  Since those are self-reported numbers they are open to interpretation, but they are interesting.

Better together?

Johnson’s remarks included a point about working with others being energizing, and the quality and speed of collaborative work being better when people get together. There seems to be some anecdotal evidence to support this, but it’s not universally true and many organizations are challenging that belief.

Different is hard to imagine

A lot of leaders have never worked remotely before. Their entire career experience (as well as their success) was achieved working in a certain way, and it’s difficult for them to imagine others achieving the same goals by working in a different manner. Industries where networking is a priority (government, finance, the law) have been particularly resistant to remote work. The problem is they may not have a choice.

Is cheese really that distracting?

Boris Johnson may be easily distracted by cheese and assume everyone else is too. He’s only human. It’s natural to assume your experience is the same as everyone else’s.

It’s tempting (and easy. So easy) to make fun of statements like this, particularly if you disagree with someone politically. But it’s important to remember that his concerns are shared by millions of people, and a high percentage of those people make decisions in organizations around the world.

One of the challenges of the next few years is going to be balancing the legitimate needs of the organization to do the best work possible, optimize existing infrastructure and make wise investment decisions with changing societal norms and demands from workers.

I had the same snarky response as a lot of people when I first heard and then read Johnson’s comments. But some of his concerns are valid, and shared by a lot of people. Those who advocate for remote work are going to have to make their case in multiple ways, focusing on financial, operational, and social outcomes, not just convenience or personal preference.


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

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Wayne Turmel has been writing about how to develop communication and leadership skills for almost 26 years. He has taught and consulted at Fortune 500 companies and startups around the world. For the last 18 years, he’s focused on the growing need to communicate effectively in remote and virtual environments.

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