Is encouraging employees back to their offices another error of judgement?

There is a very good chance that the UK government are about to embark on another huge mistake by trying to persuade employees back to work in what may be a futile attempt to revive city centres.  The news that they intend putting pressure on their own employees to return to work is likely to be received with a degree of cynicism given several government departments were leaders in encouraging remote working before the pandemic to return savings to the exchequer via reduced office space.  Should, as seems likely, more crowded commuter and underground trains as well as more heavily populated offices lead to an increase in infections, the government will once again have led itself into a dead end, with a U-turn being the only way out.

Whether this initiative proves successful is doubtful with many major employers in the UK already declaring themselves in favour of remote working.  Employers can see huge benefits from costs savings, reduced risk, improved productivity and a happier team while studies carried out by Cardiff University and the University of Southampton and the University of Birmingham and University of Kent  and others indicate that employees in the main seem to be happier working remotely.

Accept and adapt seems a better policy for the UK government than futile resistance.  It’s not as if employees will lose their enthusiasm for espresso coffee, prepacked sandwiches and meals out, they’ll just spend the money nearer home.  More progressive companies like Pret A Manger have already seen this trend and are reshaping their business accordingly.


The much higher preference for remote working in the UK is helping keep the virus in check

The one clear difference that may explain why COVID infections are rapidly increasing in Europe and not the UK is the prevalence of remote working.   While people have returned to their offices in large numbers in many European countries, that hasn’t been the case in the UK.  In France 83% of office staff have returned, and in Spain, Italy and Germany around 75% have returned to work.  In the UK only around one third of office workers have returned and the contrast is even more stark when you look at big cities, with London seeing 69% of the workforce staying away from their workplace as opposed to 26% in Paris and 22% in Barcelona which also implies much higher use of public transport in those cities than in London.    The Economist in May identified the UK as the country best set in Europe to have a large proportion of its population work remotely because services are such a large part of the UK economy.  Ironically the poor performance of the UK government in combating COVID-19 is also likely to have added to the lack of enthusiasm of employees to return to the office. From polling the UK government lags behind most European governments in how well they responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, so there would appear to be a gap in trust between employees and what their UK government is saying.


Employers need to reorganise for remote work

However, to reap all of these potential gains, it is vital that companies do this right, re-organise for home working and not just continue the same office based processes but remotely.  Communication strategies need to be worked on, employees looked after and helped to overcome negatives like loneliness and anxiety and attention paid to their home office working environment.   Staff at all levels need to be trained to support the ‘new normal’ and strategies worked out to help people who are unable or unwilling to adapt to this way of work.

Gren Gale is an expert in remote working and is author of Remote Work The New Normal and The Remote Project Manager


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