The UK’s professional services firms have implemented fresh work from home guidance but are allowing people to come into the office if they feel isolated working remotely.
Fears over the potential psychological effects of a further extended period of working from home has led formerly office-based businesses to be less stringent over the government guidelines, which were announced on Wednesday in response to the rise of the Omicron variant of Covid, under plan B.
The Prime Minister’s announcement, in the midst of the furore over parties during last winter’s lockdown at No 10 Downing Street, applied to England only; Scotland and Northern Ireland had already requested that people should work from home while Wales is for now maintaining its alert level 0 which puts the onus on employers to assess risk in the workplace.
Several studies, such as that by the National Centre for Social Research in summer 2021 have pointed to the negative mental health impact on people having to work from home in isolation for extended periods.
With this in mind, services giant PwC and “magic circle” law firm Slaughter and May are among the large businesses that will allow workers to continue to travel to the office. Another “big four” services firm, Deloitte, is also keeping offices open but with the requirement for masks and lateral flow tests.
KPMG, meanwhile, appears to have a more stringent policy. It has told employees that only business-critical meetings should take place in person, and only at “Covid-secure KPMG offices or client sites”. And EY, another of the services giants, said it would keep offices open “for those who need them”.
PwC senior partner and chairman, Kevin Ellis, said this week: “There’s no denying this will be a challenge for some sectors. The majority of our people had returned to the office two to three days a week. It’s the busy season for audit and there’s also lots of deal activity that benefits from some in-person meetings.”
Many firms have had to pause hybrid working schemes – among them insurer Aviva, finance watchdog the Financial Conduct Authority and wealth management firm Brewin Dolphin – to ask all employees to work from home if possible until further notice.
Retailers and hospitality firms in city centres are likely to immediately feel the effects of the reduced footfall plan B will bring, said consultancy Springboard. In central London, footfall in May 2021 had been 58% below the same month in 2019, but had improved to -20% last month. Springboard suggests it will now plunge to -50% compared with December 2019.
In regional cities the impact will be less marked, Springboard predicts, while retail parks and local high streets will see only a relatively small diminution of trade.
The proportion of people working at home in London is much higher than elsewhere in the country. Most workers in the UK are unable to work at home official figures suggest. Last year, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said about a quarter of people (25.9%) had worked at home at some point in the week in 2020 before they responded to officials conducting its annual population survey. It said that this compared with 12.4% of workers in 2019.
According to the figures, 46.4% of people working in the capital said they worked at home at some point in 2020.
Homeworkers work longer hours and take fewer sick days than other workers, data has shown.