It is socially irresponsible to open the office. Discuss

Business decisions to exit the coronavirus lockdown will have far-reaching consequences for society.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 04 May 2020
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Coronavirus

Many businesses are counting the days before they can get their employees back to work. If you are a clothes retailer or run a chain of salons, then the timing of your exit from lockdown is simply a matter of survival.

For companies that operate primarily out of offices, things aren’t so simple. Most leaders that I’ve spoken with have expressed satisfaction, if not astonishment, at how successfully their white collar teams have adapted to the realities of remote working.

Yet there is a divide emerging about what to do next, once the government begins its gradual, tentative easing of lockdown restrictions. 

The government’s framework will necessarily acknowledge both the public health risk of a workplace reopening and the economic risk of keeping it closed. The key question in the latter case is how essential is it for employees to come into the office, and that will to some extent be at the employer’s discretion.

Some businesses will have discovered that home-working is sustainable, that their teams can deliver just as well as before. Others - even in the same sector - will have come to the conclusion that home working remains a pale imitation of the real thing.

Clearly, in times of financial distress and recession, it would be foolish to jeopardise your ability to work - and innovate - at 100 per cent. But should an executive team take this decision if they know that in so doing they are going to increase the R number, the rate of coronavirus transmission, even in their own small way?

Millions of people are making personal sacrifices for the public good, as an act of solidarity and citizenship. Be under no doubt that these people, and the politicians they elect, will expect the same from businesses - particularly those in receipt of financial support. 

It’s unclear what the negative consequences of defying that expectation would be. It could affect how trustworthy a business is seen to be, it could yield more direct interventions (e.g. being forced to shut the office again), or it may come to nothing tangible at all, from a business point of view. 

One thing it certainly would do is to increase the risk of death for employees, their families and the wider community. It may be incremental, it may be very small, but it is an inevitable consequence of choosing to open when you could viably stay closed. 

The decision to reopen is a hard one, and an individual one, but it cannot be seen only as a business one. In a way such questions never really were before, it is also now an ethical decision. 

Image credit: John McKeen/Getty Images

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