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Workers ‘not ready’ to return to ‘busy offices’ as lockdown set to ease

Businesses should be fined if found forcing employees to return to offices, union suggests

Sam Hancock
Tuesday 02 March 2021 10:17 GMT
Single dose of Covid vaccine cuts risk of hospital admission in elderly by 80%, new figures show

Workers set to return to offices when stay-home restrictions ease have said they find the prospect “stressful” and “pointless,” with one comparing the possible threat of Covid in shared work spaces to a “grenade waiting to go off”.

Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown, announced last month, specified working from home should “continue wherever possible” at least until indoor social distancing measures were significantly relaxed – no earlier than 17 May – or scrapped altogether after 20 June.

The prospect of widespread home-working coming to an end has fuelled debate over the future of employment practices.

A City figure claimed Monday people were “tired of working from home” and wanted to get back to their offices as soon as possible.

Howard Dawber, head of strategy at Canary Wharf Group, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’ve got to the point where there is a lot of fatigue out there … people are really missing that opportunity to collaborate with and just see their friends in the office … to go and get a good coffee at lunchtime and to do all the life admin things you can do in a city centre.”

His remarks were quickly condemned on Twitter, with some suggesting the commercial property owner had “no idea what anyone wants or feels comfortable with”.

“Absolutely no one I know wants to return to the office five days a week,” Joel Baccas, wrote on the social media platform. Another user, Catherine Edwards, suggested she was “more tired of the pandemic part of working from home during a pandemic”.

Saurav Dutt, an author and business consultant in London, told The Independent it would be impossible to navigate crowds of people – and trust everyone is continuing to be as careful as possible when rules change.

“Consultancy means meeting with many stakeholders, many meetings, different rooms, lots of dialogue and interaction. I just can’t be confident how strictly others will adhere to good hygiene and be mindful of guidance in those buildings,” he said.

“We’ve seen a lack of common sense and good practice during lockdown, why would the stressful environment of the office and public transport help to eliminate it?”

Mr Dutt said returning to work should only happen “in a phased, logical manner that is genuinely bilateral and consultative”, though he admitted that is unlikely.

“I can see a Pandora’s box waiting to be opened where we will be rushed in and penalised for wanting that flexibility to work part at home, part in an office by right, regardless of how incredibly productive we might have been working from home beforehand.”

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) said workers’ rights had already been jeopardised during lockdown after its research, published last month, indicated one in five people were still going into offices for either part or all of their working week despite being able to do their jobs from home.

“The government must crackdown on bosses who force staff into the office when they can work from home. This is a clear breach of the guidance and is putting workers and communities at risk of infection,” TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said.

“People who find themselves in this situation should have the right to trigger a spot check by the Health and Safety Executive – and employers found to be breaking the law should be fined.”

She added: “It’s time to end the foot-dragging approach to enforcement that has characterised workplace safety in this pandemic.”

Office worker Stuart Grimshaw, who lives in Sheffield, suggested coronavirus had shown that the spaces were often pointless for a huge number of people forced to go into them every day.

“I’m much more happy working from home and always have been,” he told The Independent. “I appreciate as a software consultant I’m able to work like that and I realise not everyone can, but the pandemic has shown that many office jobs don’t require the whole company to be lumped in to one cramped office.”

The prime minister dismissed claims that working from home could become ‘the new normal’ last week. Speaking at a virtual rail industry conference, he said “in a few short months” the UK’s economy would reopen and “British people will be consumed once again with their desire for the genuine face-to-face meeting that makes all the difference to the deal”.

But performance management expert Amira Kohler, who is head of performance and change at Clear Review, said the “key to a company’s success in 2021” will be to “ensure employees feel supported and are managed effectively whilst working remotely”.

“Going back to the office may be welcomed by some but others may feel just fine working from home,” she said.

“Ultimately, flexibility will be key here as a one size fits all approach will not work.”

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