At this week’s Covid-19 press briefing the Prime Minister confirmed the Government will no longer ask employees to work from home “if possible”. While he said the change would enable employers to “start planning a safe return to the workplace”, he stopped short of urging people to head back to the office. Instead, bosses will be given discretion over whether their employees should return to the office, with Johnson telling the Downing Street press conference: “The rest is really for employers and employees to work out for themselves.” This is a much more equivocal position than the stance the government were taking this time last year when the first lockdown restrictions were being lifted.
Back then Boris Johnson told office workers to start returning to their desks to help save the British economy. He and, chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak were said to be aghast at the impact empty offices were having on town centre shops and restaurants. They worried that widespread homeworking was wrecking Britain’s productivity. Johnson also told Whitehall chiefs to set an example by starting to return civil servants to their desks saying, that it was “more efficient and productive” than working from home. “I know there are logistical difficulties but we have got to get back to our desks if we can,” he said. “I do hope, in the words of Vera Lynn, we will meet again and get everybody back together. The faster we can get back to the status quo the better.”
Caution around Covid-19 partially explains the change in emphasis but more than that, I would argue, there is an acceptance that the world of work has changed for good. This is exactly what Never Going Back – How Covid-19 changed for work , forecast and it’s good to see our leading politicians belatedly catching up with the public mood.
The book argues that, thanks to Covid-19, work and life will never be the same again and that though the pandemic has brought widespread misery, something good, a new order in the world of work, will emerge. The book looks at how our long-term physical and mental health is being impacted and how our homes, communities and our planet will be all the better for Covid-19. Overall it makes the case, now heeded by government, for the UK to push forward not back; to embrace these changes and build a more productive, greener, cleaner, healthier and happier society.
Unlike the legal underpinnings around some of the other measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing and the rule of six, working from home if possible was always advisory, so what difference will the change in emphasis make? Many believe employers will face a battle to get more people back into offices despite Boris Johnson lifting the work from home guidance and unions are now demanding a legal right to flexible working for every employee.
However, Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, called on the Government to consult with employers and unions on the updated workplace safety guidance to avoid “widespread confusion”. Cautioning bosses against issuing blanket requests for their workers to return to the office, she added: “As the work from home guidance ends, employers must acknowledge that one size does not fit all. They should consult their staff and unions about continuing flexibility in working patterns and location. Flexible working isn’t just about working at home. It can mean having predictable or fixed hours, working as a job-share, or working flexitime, term-time only hours or compressed hours. No one should miss out on flexible working. Ministers must bring in a new right to flexible working for every worker, in every job. Otherwise there will be a new class divide between those who can work flexibly from home, and those who can’t.”
Ministers are currently exploring whether employees should be given the right to request flexible working arrangements as the “default” option, unless their bosses provide a “good reason” not to. This will not extend to a legal right to work from home, however, with Downing Street previously making clear there are “clear benefits to be gained from people working in the office”. It came as bosses at John Lewis and Waitrose confirmed they will introduce flexible working for staff at the retailer’s head offices. Andrew Murphy, executive director of operations for the John Lewis Partnership, said that the “pandemic has forced us all to rethink the norm of five days in an office.” John Lewis joins a long list of other businesses that have introduced flexible working for staff, including Asda, which announced staff will be able to work from any location best suited to their job.
According to the findings of the Government’s social distancing review, published earlier this week, working from home has reduced the likelihood of people testing positive for Covid-19. However, it found that the socio-economic impact had been “complex”, with levels of productivity varying sector by sector, improving in some while falling in others. While some firms reported happier workforces and reduced overheads, others said it had hampered the exchange of ideas, stifled creativity and hindered collaboration.
While government advises and employers decide the new work pattern in these coming weeks, ultimately it will be the workers who will determine the future. We believe humanity is tantalisingly close to realising the dream of many – a world where more and more of us can choose how, when and where we work. In recent decades when technology first brought that goal within reach we chose instead money and materialism, to work harder, to get more. Now as a result of this unprecedented time for modern humanity, this collective groupthink of lockdown, this pause of the populous, we are making a different choice. The great irony is that having being given more time to ourselves and with our family, what we want, more than anything else, is more time. Having left behind the habitual existence of commute, work, sleep, repeat we can no longer countenance going back there. Never Going Back.