Are things being done differently in other European countries?
A French friend who lives in the UK has just returned from a holiday in Italy and I was interested to hear her views on why infections in Europe were rising at a far faster rate than in the UK. New Scientist this week was reporting the rate in Spain at 270 per 100,000 and France at 153 while the UK is at 51 per 100,000.
Her answer was that as far as she could see there was no difference in what people were doing in France and Italy than in the UK, other than the wearing of face masks was far more widespread there. People were going to shops, restaurants, hairdressers and beaches in pretty much the same way in Italy and France as they were doing here. So why are COVID infections increasing in Europe and not the UK?
The prevalence of remote working is much higher in the UK
However, there is one clear difference between most other European countries and the UK that may explain why COVID infections are increasing in Europe and that 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 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 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 should bow to the market and accept that the nature of work is about to change dramatically.
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 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.