A couple of weeks ago, PwC’s UK chairman Kevin Ellis was asked on BBC Radio 4’s The World At One about the rationale for employers bringing staff back to the office. “Just because you can work from home,” he said, “it doesn’t necessarily mean you should - because of the wider economic impact.”
It’s an unusually altruistic argument for a business decision. Do we have a moral duty to the wider economy, and to other people’s livelihoods?
Ellis’s concerns about the economic impact of not reopening offices are certainly well grounded. With workplaces still largely empty, there is a deep crisis among city centre shops, pubs and eateries that are dependent on commuter spend.
Sales at coffee-and-sandwich giant Pret a Manger, for example, are down 80 per cent. If white collar workers are still avoiding the office when the furlough scheme ends in October, the impact on people’s jobs and welfare would be catastrophic.
But a decision like that doesn’t come without consequences. Leading scientists remain divided over how much more we can return to normal before causing a resurgence in COVID-19, which aside from costing thousands more people their lives would also prompt another economically crippling lockdown.
If we really are at the limits of our ability to contain coronavirus, then it becomes a zero sum game - you can’t reopen offices, pubs, schools, universities and live events, so what gives? It’s hard to justify saving the office when office work is the one activity that can reasonably - and now demonstrably - be done at home.
The business decision
The government has of course given employers the green light to reopen workplaces, and it remains primarily a business decision. Here, there are various strong reasons why a company would favour reopening to some extent.
Aside from the somewhat cliched impossibility of serendipitous water-cooler creativity, there are cultural consequences to working remotely. A CIPD study found that company culture can start to fragment after two and a half days of remote working as employees feel left out or out of touch.
A different study of US workers found that collaboration between immediate team members increased by as much as 40 per cent during the coronavirus lockdown, but declined by 10 per cent between more peripheral colleagues across the organisation.
As PwC’s Ellis also highlighted, the productivity and wellbeing benefits that some people experience when working from home are not universal. Many people are desperate for a return to the office, and relatively few would choose not to come in at all if the virus disappeared.
But the virus hasn’t disappeared, and even if it is better for business performance for most people to come in most of the time, it’s quite a different matter to insist all employees come in, even some of the time.
After months of being told to stay at home - and with the virus still at large - many are highly nervous about returning to the office. According to the CIPD, one in ten don’t trust their employer to keep them safe.
As the law stands, it is up to the employer when and how to reopen a workplace, so long as COVID-19 safety regulations are met, but there are substantial risks in forcing people back to the office.
If employees are made to come in and then get infected, or refuse to come in and get fired, there are risks of claims against the employer over negligence or under section 44 of the Employment Rights Act respectively.
That’s clearly a reputational issue as well as a looming HR headache, but on a deeper level it comes back to your priorities, about what kind of business you are and where your priorities really lie.
What signal do you expect it will send if you choose to make people come into the office against their will, telling them that it’s not up to them to decide about a matter of their own health? Do you really think the toxic effects on morale and loyalty will be neutralised by arguments about the health of the wider economy?
Sadly, there is no easy solution to any of this, and whatever decision businesses take will inevitably have some negative consequences for at least someone. All we can really do is tread carefully, pay attention to the evidence and listen to people.
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