The tide turns for workplaces as lockdown eases

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The coronavirus conversation has turned to how we will re-enter the workplace. As the government considers responses to its draft guidance in the run-up to Sunday’s announcement, should we expect to get back to normality or do we stand on the brink of a new era? Adam McCulloch reports.

Gauging from the reaction of unions and businesses to the government’s draft guidance on returning to work, the scale of the issues facing organisations as the coronavirus crisis continues has led to a fair amount of exasperation – a sense that we’re trying to surf a tsunami after only a couple of hours’ training.

There’s also a pioneering mood afoot. We’re in uncharted waters so we may as well throw a few ideas around and see how they land.

The CBI has spoken of all being in this together. The end of the lockdown, it stated, “can be the start of economic renewal – with a shared determination to build-in sustainability and fairness to a long-term vision”. These words from the UK’s largest business lobby group indicate we’re at the start of a new epoch.

The government’s announcement on Sunday about loosening the lockdown is keenly awaited by business. Will it prove too conservative? Too prescriptive? Or will it leave things up to individual organisations too much?

The latter is what the TUC is concerned about and its criticism of the draft guidelines for being too lax did not smack of knee-jerk union reaction but serious concern. It is seeking guarantees of safety, backed up by legal force: “We want clear guidance to set out the minimum standards that employers must meet in order to protect public safety. And we want ministers to outline a new tough approach to enforcement,” said general secretary Frances O’Grady.

It is the legal ramifications of returning to work that much of businesses’ attention is focused on. A spokesman for the Institute of Directors has said: “Guidance setting out how businesses can safely operate during the coronavirus pandemic is vital to give employers and staff confidence.

“However, it’s important to get clarity on the status of any official advice, and what it means in terms of directors’ legal duties.”

Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, reinforces that point: “Understanding the legal implications is a key issue. Every employer wants to keep their employees safe. They need to know what the consequences are if they have done everything but an employee still falls ill or dies after attending the workplace.

“Equally what are the consequences for employers who wilfully don’t follow the rules? Could they be sued for corporate manslaughter? These are key details which need to be spelled out.”

If the rules do carry legal force, it could be the case that businesses may face increased indemnity insurance costs. Chris Cook, partner and head of employment & data protection at SA Law, tells Personnel Today businesses will need to plan how their business can continue while complying with their health and safety duties and the government’s public health guidance.

This, he says, could be through frequent deep cleans, rotating shift patterns and new desk layouts. But “as things stand, employers risk financial penalties from a breach of their health and safety obligations, along with potential criminal proceedings for corporate manslaughter, if Covid-19 is transmitted in the workplace.

“Most employees will have to go back into the office, as per the terms of their employment contracts. However, employers should be open to requests to work from home and accommodate flexible working where possible, even if this is only on a temporary basis until the Covid-19 crisis passes.”

But away from legal risks there are also upsides and opportunities in the situation. Edwin Morgan, director of policy at the Institute of Directors, says the lockdown has been a trigger for innovation: “Lockdown means few businesses can operate as they used to and, as a result, many companies are finding a way to innovate through the obstacles. The solutions they create might just end up becoming the new normal.”

Shared spaces that deliver a great experience and where people can come together will be the default. It is vital that teams can come together to collaborate, and nothing beats the energy and dynamism that comes with real interactions” – Chris Richards, Unit4

He adds: “Some changes, such as distancing on production lines or providing PPE to staff are virus-related necessities, but others, in particular making services digital and more flexible working, bring benefits of their own. With it looking likely that restrictions will continue in some form for months, more and more directors will fundamentally change their business models.”

Robert Joyce, deputy director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the author of a new report on the issue, also sees the opportunity to innovate, recover fractured working lives and improve the workplace for many of the UK’s workers: “More than ever the government needs to mitigate uncertainty wherever possible, promote and share innovation and help smooth the matching of workers to jobs.

“It needs to adjust policy to incentivise newly desirable behaviours like home working and avoiding public transport at peak hours. And it needs a transparent and principled stance on supporting industry which will stop it falling victim to special pleading.”

The IFS report calls on the government to: incentivise working from home possibly through subsidies; promote changed commuting patterns especially in the major cities; and most interestingly, given high rates of unemployment many are predicting, coming up with a scheme to employ “furloughed or redundant workers to do valuable public investment work that will pay off later – if the government can identify areas where the private sector is not producing vacancies appropriate to unemployed workers’ skill-sets, and if it can plan the public investment wisely”.

Data should provide the spring for the guidelines says the IFS, noting that two thirds of London jobs that involve commuting on public transport are compatible with working from home. Its researchers also reveal that there’s a close correlation between occupations involving team work and those which are customer facing, suggesting a fairly clear hierarchy of ability for social distancing.

Another key finding is that, of those who are not key workers and cannot easily work from home, around two thirds may find it hard to return to work safely because of their age or health status, the age or health status of those they live with, or because they have school or pre-school children. Even if schools and childcare were to reopen, this might still be a problem for a third of workers.

Lockdown means few businesses can operate as they used to and, as a result, many companies are finding a way to innovate through the obstacles. The solutions they create might just end up becoming the new normal” – Edwin Morgan, IoD

Such considerations as this serve to underline how unprecedented the crisis is. Employers must now consider who lives with an employee in ways they have never previously had to.

Further concerns revolve around PPE provision and whether there will be enough of it to go round given the NHS’s pressing need for it. Rob Pitcher, the boss of Revolution Bars, tells the Evening Standard: “Hospitality businesses are close-working environments; however, there are good opportunities to stagger shifts and breaks as well as conducting regular cleaning. Clarification on personal distancing and personal protective equipment requirements would also be welcomed as there have been clear supply chain issues around some items.”

As for the future of office work as a whole, it would be impossible, as with retail, to make confident predictions. But Chris Richards, regional president UK and Ireland at global software company Unit4, is sure that the need for collaboration in physical proximity has not gone away despite widespread satisfaction with the nation’s output from bedrooms and kitchens.

She has been pleased with Unit4 employees’ response to working from home. She tells Personnel Today that the company has seen a 12% productivity increase since home working started in March. But, she says, “It would be difficult to sustain for any company. It’s a positive reaction, people working hard to collaborate and wanting to make a success of it. I desperately want to meet my team again.”

Chris Richards, regional president UK and Ireland, Unit4.

The office may change forever she adds: “My vision is whiteboards, interactive displays and spaces for collaboration.” Shared spaces means hot-desking though, something which the draft guidance suggests we may see less of in future. That would be economically difficult to implement, as businesses will surely look to reduce spending on office space not increase it. As Richards says: “Safety has to come first, but if we’re going to make the permanent shifts that cause hot-desking to go cold, employers will have to take a long hard look at how work gets done.”

Cleaning will be a massive issue; as with delivery drivers and bus drivers, it seems that some of the country’s most valuable assets are those who are often overlooked, disdained as “unskilled” and even actively prevented from entering the country. Where will the army of cleaners come from who will be needed to ensure the level of hygiene is improved in the UK’s workplaces?

But back to the offices we will go, says Richards. “Although lockdown has been the largest experiment of working patterns in history, proving incontrovertibly that permanent remote working can be done, people don’t want to work that way all the time.”

“Shared spaces that deliver a great experience and where people can come together will be the default. It is vital that teams can come together to collaborate, and nothing beats the energy and dynamism that comes with real interactions.

The government needs to adjust policy to incentivise newly desirable behaviours like home working and avoiding public transport at peak hours. And it needs a transparent and principled stance on supporting industry which will stop it falling victim to special pleading” – Robert Joyce, Institute for Fiscal Studies

“Ultimately relationships are the lifeline of business. We can’t build those through a screen. Our workers still need positive environments to engage, socialise and collaborate. But at a time when everyone’s emotions are heightened, increased sensitivity is needed to reassure workers that in whatever capacity we go ‘back to work’ – their well-being comes first and they have a say.”

That may be so but landlords will have concerns over bottlenecks of employees entering buildings and using lifts together, particularly in buildings shared by multiple companies.

Melanie Leech, chief executive of the British Property Federation said: “We urgently need the government to publish its strategy and timetable for easing the lockdown and what public health guidance will apply.” She echoes Gartner’s Brian Kropp’s comments about perceptions of safety, and says: “Our overwhelming priority is to make sure that people feel safe – as they travel and in their places of work. As property owners and managers we have a critical role to play and we will work with our tenants in offices, warehouses and shops to support them.”

Employers, landlords, tenants, employees – and those they live with – across every sector in every area have an interest in how the government will direct the return to normality. But there’s every indication that this won’t be normality. It will be the new normal.

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