Jacob Rees-Mogg has faced fierce criticism for spearheading the “ideological” drive to get people back to offices on BBC Question Time.
The government is pushing for a “rapid return” of officials to their Whitehall desks after working from home became the norm during the pandemic.
Boris Johnson widened the call last week as he urged businesses to help boost the economy by doing the same as Covid-19 eases – referring to the temptation of cheese as he suggested working from home does not work.
Last month, Rees-Mogg – a government minister with responsibility for efficiency – was labelled a “nasty patronising man” after leaving notes on the desks of civil servants who were not in the office.
It read: “Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon. Wish every good wish.”
On Question Time from Liverpool on Thursday, an audience member took issue with Rees-Mogg’s “smarmy” note.
She said: “I think that civil service leaders should let adults do the adulting and decide what’s best for ourselves, instead of the likes of Rees-Mogg leaving smarmy messages.
“I prefer to work from home and, in my department in the civil service, it’s been proven that we are far more productive working from home, plus the fact it’s getting to the point where I can’t afford the fuel to drive into the city centre anyway.”
Her comments were echoed by some of the panelists appearing on the BBC’s flagship political show.
Labour’s Lucy Powell described Rees-Mogg as “a terrible head boy prefect at some awful public school”.
The shadow cabinet minister added: “He’s like the opposite of modern Britain, going around and sticking Post-it notes on people’s desks.”
SNP frontbencher Alyn Smith added: “My concern with the current government is that they’ve got an ideological agenda to get people back into the office, whether it was working for them or not, because the economy is somehow powered by lunchtime sandwiches.
“Lots of people do know exactly what’s best for them, and people should be allowed to make their own decisions, and we should see more flexibility in the world of work and less ideology.”
In response to the criticism, government minister Lucy Frazer said: “I think there are some downsides to working at home. I think, for young people starting, they need to learn and have mentors and learn from seniors and, if everyone is at home, it’s very difficult for the young people to get the skills that they need.
“The second thing is I am really worried about people’s mental health, particularly young people. Somebody mentioned we are social animals. We might all think we are OK working at home but, actually, that social interaction is really important, and I think loneliness, particularly over the period of the pandemic, and it will be becoming an increasing problem.
“Thirdly, I mentioned, when you asked me what were we going to do, what was our plan in relation to improving growth and productivity, one of the headings is about skills and people, and if we want to upskill people and retrain them, you can do some of that at home, but you can also do some of it quite well when you are in the office as well.”