Is the UK different to the rest of Europe?
There would seem to be very little difference in the way that people across most of Europe are living their lives under COVID. Several countries are more insistent on the use of face masks outdoors as well as indoors but people are going to shops, restaurants, hairdressers and beaches in pretty much the same way as they doing in the UK. However there is one major difference between the UK and the rest of Europe. The level of remote working is far higher in the UK and is bound to be a significant factor in controlling infection. Remote working reduces both the risk of contact and the use of public transport and has proved to be a significant factor in the fight against COVID.
The prevalence of remote working is much higher in the UK
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 combatting COVID-19 may also 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.
The UK government should accept and adapt to remote working rather than showing futile resistance
For understandable short term economic reasons the UK government is pushing to get employees back into their place of work particularly in big cities where the service industries dependent on office workers are on the point of collapse. While it’s clearly difficult to cope with an almost instant revolution in behaviour perhaps the UK government bow to the market and accept that the nature of work is about to change dramatically. To do otherwise would be to act like King Kanute trying to hold back the inevitable and would also throw away one of the UK’s most significant weapons in the fight against COVID.
Employers can see huge long term 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. Even the short term formula looks better compared to a return to offices, with infection risks increased by working indoors usually in offices with no opening windows and air conditioning that recirculates the air everyone breathes, let alone the risk of getting there by public transport.
Accept and adapt seems a better policy than futile resistance. Its not as if employees will lose their enthusiasm for espresso coffee, prepacked sandwiches and meals out, they’ll just spend the money nearer home.
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.