‘No one should be forced’: How workers feel about returning to the office

‘People aren’t being made to go back because working from home isn’t effective, but the government is pushing so people have to pay £5 for their Pret A Manger lunch’

Kate Ng
Wednesday 02 September 2020 15:22 BST
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As Boris Johnson prepares to launch his campaign to drive people back to the workplace, office employees throughout the UK have mixed feelings about shifting from working from home to getting on public transport and heading back into city centres.

A report by academics at Cardiff University and the University of Southampton found that 88 per cent of employees who worked from home during the coronavirus lockdown would like to continue doing so in some capacity.

But some workers have said working from home constantly is an “isolating” experience and are looking forward to the return to traditional working life.

Bryce Wilcock, 29, told The Independent that there are some things that simply cannot be replicated in an environment where everyone works from home, and it’s especially important for those working in creative industries to be in one place.

The PR account manager works at Creo Communications in Sunderland city centre, and said he cannot wait to go back to the office in two weeks.

“My company adapted really easily to working from home, we provide PR, creative design, social media campaigns and such, so everything was really quite seamless and productivity levels were high even when working from home,” he said.

“But there’s no replacing the creative cohesion you have in the office, it’s not something you can replicate in working from home. We’ve always been a flexible company, but I think now going forward, remote working is not something we’ll implement as a permanent feature.”

Socialising with colleagues and developing new work connections was something both Mr Wilcock and Buzz Carter, 23, said they missed about being in an office.

Mr Carter, who works in marketing at an online blinds retailer in Essex, said he found working from home constantly too “isolating” and “lonely”. His company returned to the office two weeks ago and most of them have been working full time there.

“Working from home was a mixed bag. I enjoyed not having to commute and have the ability to be more relaxed than at an office, but I did find it isolating because I’d be home all day. At the time, my girlfriend was still working from the office, so for about 10 hours a day, five days a week, I’d be alone.”

Aside from going back to the office, commuting to and from work is also at the forefront of employees’ minds – particularly for those who use public transport and have to make longer journeys.

Saurav Dutt, a business development manager, said he is worried about difficulties breathing while wearing a mask on a full train and the anxiety of being in a crowded space. He recently started to go back into work one day a week, commuting from Warwickshire to a large office building in central London.

“I think it will have a bigger impact on staff morale than we realise,” he told The Independent. “People will be worried while on the journey to work, about being in close proximity with other people in a train at capacity, and will bring that anxiety into the workplace, where they will be exposed to even more people.

“With winter coming, there is the usual risk of getting a cold or flu, but with this virus still around, fears will be even more heightened.”

Making the office Covid-secure plays an important part in reassuring workers it is safe to go back.

Hollie Hines, a content and digital PR specialist at Clicky, in Chester, said she is happy with her office’s new setup and praised her agency for “going the extra mile” to make staff feel safe.

“They reviewed the office space and carefully rearranged the desks in an L-shape so we have naturally socially distanced barriers, and we now have a booking system so we can choose when we want to go into the office and book in to ensure there aren’t too many people there at any one time,” she said.

“Each desk has its own hand sanitiser and they provide us with masks. We’ve also been given the option to work from home permanently if we want to, but I go in an average of twice a week, which I really enjoy.”

Ms Hines said if all companies could operate this way, people would feel much better about going back to work in city centres.

Despite the positive tone echoed by some employees about going back to the office, most of them said they did not agree with the way the government is pushing to get people back into the office.

“It feels like they’re doing it for the wrong reasons,” said Mr Carter. “People aren’t being made to go back because working from home isn’t effective – it is effective – but the government is pushing so people have to pay £5 for their Pret A Manger lunch.

“It just doesn’t feel based on science to me, and I can’t imagine commuting all the way to London and getting on the tube under these circumstances.”

Labour called on the government to “categorically rule out” the campaign, calling it “unconscionable” to force people to choose between their health and their job.

Mr Wilcock said encouraging people to go back to the office is “one of the few right things this government is doing”, but that they aren’t using the right approach.

“People with vulnerable loved ones should not be pushed back into the office, and they’re wrong in saying that they may be sacked if they continue to work from home,” he said.

Reports ahead of the official launch of the back-to-office campaign quoted government sources as warning that working from home “isn’t the benign option it seems” and made employees more vulnerable to being sacked.

“It should depend on what you do and where you work, it should be on a case by case basis – ultimately, no one should be forced to go back to the workplace if they don’t feel safe.”

Sebastian Mattern, a solicitor from commercial law firm Tiger Law, said reports that employees may be at risk of getting sacked if they continue to work from home are “absolute nonsense” as there are plenty of protections for workers in place.

“If people have been told to work from home or their employers have offered that opportunity, there is absolutely no difference in the types of protections they are afforded,” he told The Independent. “Everybody needs to be treated the same way.”

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