Government ‘back to work’ campaign is stepped up

London’s financial centre has been virtually empty since lockdown began in March
Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto/PA Images

The government will begin a campaign next week to urge workers back to offices after claims from business groups that mass working from home is creating “ghost towns”.

The campaign will begin as schools in England and Wales re-open for the autumn term, which may make a physical return to work more feasible for parents.

Employers will be asked to highlight to staff the measures they are taking to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Earlier this week Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, said the government needed to do more to encourage employees back to offices as this supports thousands of city businesses such as dry cleaners and sandwich shops.

One chain, Pret a Manger, announced yesterday it would cut 3,000 jobs – more than a third of its workforce – after sales plunged during the pandemic.

However, a study of 50 major employers by the BBC, also this week, found that 24 of them had no plans to bring staff back to the office, and only three had brought back some staff to the office.

A number of global employers, including Twitter and Fujitsu, have announced long-term ‘work from anywhere’ policies, and many do not expect employees to return until some time in 2021.

Global bank JPMorgan Chase also this week announced a new rotational working model, where a proportion of staff work from home on a regular basis.

The government’s guidance on working from home changed subtly on 1 August to encourage employees to “start to go back to work now if you can”, but there has not been a significant increase in numbers returning to cities.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps told the BBC Breakfast programme that it would “usually be OK to return, unless somebody is in a particularly vulnerable state there is no reason not to return”.

He added that most offices now had measures in place so people could work safely but that “we’ll see more flexible working than we’ve seen in the past and it will be for employers and employees to work out the right balance in their particular cases”.

Today’s Telegraph’s front page claimed that the government’s back to work campaign would warn that working from home could make people more vulnerable to being sacked, but Whitehall sources have denied this is the case.

Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, said employees should not feel pressured to return to the workplace, and that any return to work should be mutually agreed with the employee only when it is safe and essential.

He said: “Working from home has proved to be a great success for many individuals and organisations. Recent CIPD research found that a majority of employers believe that homeworkers are either as productive as other workers, or more productive.

“However, it’s important that all employers take steps to support their employees’ mental health and address concerns they may have while they work from home.Managers should be regularly checking in with their staff, discussing their wellbeing and wherever possible ensuring decisions over working from home or returning to the workplace are based on individual choice and preference.

“Effective test and trace is also key for a safe return to workplaces and people who are asked to self-isolate should receive adequate compensation so they don’t lose out financially.”

Rustom Tata, chairman of city law firm DMH Stallard, said “employees who have been able to work remotely will feel more able to challenge an employer who attempts to force their return on a full-time basis”.

“Occasional ‘office meets’ may well become the norm – with ‘work’ being done more at home or remotely, and offices becoming used as hubs where employees can meet and interact with colleagues on specific days and times,” he added. “Having said that, employees will need a proper reason for refusing to attend the workplace if the employer requests their return.”

“The first line of argument may be that the employee is concerned about the safety measures taken by their employer – has a risk assessment been carried out and has there been consultation about it? If those things have been done, an employee will need to show their specific concern, and it will need some substance.”

A number of companies have already decided to reduce their real estate commitments as more employees work from home or adopt flexible patterns – London office rents are projected to fall by 40%, according to the Society of Industrial and Office Realtors.

A number of ministers have criticised the government’s plans to step up its return-to-work campaign. Women and Equalities minister Liz Truss said that the move could undermine a pledge in the Conservative manifesto to introduce flexible working by default, while others questioned whether it would unfairly impact women as childcare availability is still shaky.

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