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‘Return to the office’ mandate from No 10

‘Return to the office’ mandate from No 10

We’re now at an end of ‘work at home’ guidance and the government is advising employees to discuss a return to the office with their employers. I can’t recall that advice being given previously in the pandemic, and I wonder whether for many, that horse has already bolted. I also wonder whether the government machine will succeed in having the same conversations with its employees, given that the civil service has been advertising for home-based or hybrid roles for the last 18 months and will be obliged to maintain that status if this has been contractually agreed with staff. I’m not alone in speculating about this – the PCS union has already stated its opposition to a return to the office.

The call to return to the office has come too late for many

Homeworking is not good for town and city centres, and perhaps this is the motivation for the revised approach from our political leaders, though probably too late for the many small independent businesses that derived the bulk of their living from satiating the needs of office-workers. Those that can will no doubt switch their focus to different markets, but one should not underestimate the strain and economic impact that ‘work from home if you can’ has had on service sector businesses in our towns and cities.

Many companies have already switched to hybrid working, and home working has become mainstream, rather than the preserve of the few, as was the case prior to the pandemic. Other industries and sectors will do well from this economic shift – the delivery sector, housing and construction and their respective suppliers, as people adapt homes and shopping patterns to suit their new working lives.

20 years ago, the pandemic impact on a return to the office would have been very different

Homeworking isn’t all bad from an economic perspective. 20 years ago, when I was responsible for HR for Coca-Cola’s UK operations, including 6 manufacturing sites from South London to Glasgow, so I spent a lot of time on the road. To increase my efficiency, I was eventually granted a car phone, so that I could work while travelling. If I needed to attend a meeting in our Glasgow site, I would drive to Heathrow at dawn, park my car and get on a plane, once landed I would hire a car or get a taxi to site. After the meeting, I would do it all in reverse, to arrive home in the evening. All for a couple of hours of meetings. With the advent of virtual meetings on Zoom or Teams it would seem nonsensical to do the same thing today.

Face to face time is important, but arguably not always necessary. If I had the same job now, I think I might fly to Glasgow once or twice a year, rather than every week. I appreciate that might not be good news for the airline and other operators in the chain, but it must be environmentally beneficial, and would save a lot of relatively unproductive travel time. I’d miss my gin and tonic on the flight home though!

Returning to the office is going to take at least as long to achieve as the 2-year period of pandemic homeworking, if we haven’t missed the boat already. Realistically, the pandemic has caused a shift in working behaviour that has been enabled by technology, and it’s hard to see a return to the levels of office working that existed prior. Had the pandemic happened 20 years ago, when the technology wasn’t available, it’s unlikely that this shift would have occurred on such a scale, and workers would have returned to the office many months ago. We had video conferencing in those days, but it was poor quality, and there was always a delay on the audio, leading to frustrating stop-start conversations.

Our communications network must be protected

Through the advent of visual communications, meetings that are almost as good as face to face can now happen in seconds, connecting decision-makers around the globe. This should allow for more business to be done more quickly and should benefit economies overall. Will that benefit offset the shutdown of other parts of our economy that used to service an essentially office-based workforce?  Quite possibly, I think is the only answer I can arrive at for now.

Today’s high-tech environment is a crucial factor in the continuation of homeworking and in our economic future – stable high speed communications are now probably one of our most essential national assets, and it is absolutely vital that our government invests heavily in protecting our undersea cables and satellite communications. The recent Tsunami in Tonga has illustrated how quickly an entire communications infrastructure can be lost.

‘Return to the office’ mandate is likely to fall on deaf ears

My prediction is that homeworking and hybrid working are here to stay. This is reflected in the recruitment market – myHRdept’s in-house recruiter Jas Virdee told me that almost the first question candidates ask is about homeworking. Clients insisting on ‘5 days in the office’ are increasingly struggling to fill their vacancies.

Hybrid working and home-working present new HR challenges

Homeworking will bring significant issues for employers however, all of whom should have a comprehensive policy and support programme in place. Data protection and health and safety considerations are the more obvious issues, but less easily seen is the mental impact. Most abuse happens in the home, and if people are spending more time in it, it’s logical to assume that more abuse will happen. Paying attention to an employee’s personal challenges is difficult on daily Zoom calls, and it’s important for employers to provide outlets for employees to confidently seek help or advice, and to have practical solutions available for employees who need it. Ironically one of those solutions is likely to be a place in an office for employee’s with a poor home life.

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