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Back to the office?

Most of the remaining restrictions on social distancing ended on 19th July. Does this mean the end of the daily Zoom and the return of the daily commute for employees? 

As the UK gradually emerges the unprecedented events of the last 18 months, employers looking to bring staff back into the office environment in September (if not already) face yet another minefield to negotiate. There has been much debate about compulsory vaccination of staff in recent weeks which has obscured, to some extent, a more basic question: will employers be able to compel staff to return to the workplace at all?

The UK’s three lockdowns have by and large demonstrated that any objections employers may have previously held about feasibility of working from home are largely unfounded. The simple fact is that at the technological level, at least, there is little need for the vast majority of “white-collar” employees to maintain a physical presence in the office. Some employers were very quick to realise the potential cost-saving in terms of rent and business rates and were informing their workforce, as early as Summer 2020, that there would be no return to pre-pandemic working arrangements once lockdown had ended. Hot-desking (by appointment or rota) in a reduced office space was to become the new normal.

So why haven’t more employers followed suit? Well, quite apart from the fact that many businesses may be stuck with their leases and office infrastructure for several years to come, there are also psychological factors which cannot be ignored. Employers in the private sector have invested a lot of capital into their businesses and take commercial risks on a daily basis. Success stems from a delicate balance of various factors, including the need to have employees “bought in” to the overall vision.

Managing staff was always a challenge but managing a disparate workforce even more so. People say as much if not more about their mood, feelings and intentions by the body language they exhibit than by the words they use. Indeed, most people make a conscious effort to conceal their thoughts by “choosing their words carefully”, especially in e-mails. However, as a modern day employer, it is very hazardous indeed to take another’s words at face value. Brexit has not (yet, at least) led to any reduction in the levels of responsibility and liability employers have to safeguard individual employee rights and so it is vital that they remain alert to the early signs of employee discontent. This is much more difficult to achieve if the only contact they have with their staff is by e-mail and weekly Zoom meetings.

And we must not underestimate the basic human need for actual contact with others. Whilst one in four employees might say they will resign if they are ordered back to the office (according to a survey of 1,000 employees, conducted by HR software company, Personio), one in three admit to lower morale and less productivity when away from the office environment. So what are employers to do in the face of such conflicting statistics?

Issuing a decree recalling all staff on 21 June is probably not the wisest course of action as some staff, such as those who are clinically vulnerable, may feel quite anxious about the prospect of commuting in crowds after a lengthy period of confinement. A phased return, starting with those who actually want to return to the office voluntarily is one option. Then, as confidence builds, ways may be sought to accommodate some flexibility whereby staff may be permitted e.g. to commute outside of the busiest times or to work from home for part of the week. It is to be hoped that most people will take a sensible approach with employers being sensitive to individuals’ needs and employees being realistic in not expecting their employer to rearrange its entire organisation around their personal preferences.

This blog was written by:  Mark Higgins

DISCLAIMER: Please note that this post sets out the general position under the general law. It should not be acted upon in any specific circumstances without taking specific legal advice as to those circumstances. Also, it should not be relied upon, acted upon or treated as a substitute for specific advice relevant to particular circumstances. If you do require specific advice please contact us for assistance.