In March, the lockdown put major restrictions on life and work movements, including the statement “If you can work from home you should”. This advice was taken up by all parts of the UK. This closed offices in an instant and a whole new adventure of home working in impromptu settings emerged (e.g. ironing boards).
As the economy started to awaken in July, the message for office workers in England came from the government to return to the office, and maybe buy a coffee on the way in, and by the way, you’ll get a half price lunch too if the eatery is part of the eat out to help out scheme. On 17th July Boris Johnson’s briefing stated that from 1st August in England, the requirement to “work from home if you can” will be dropped as long as the workplace is COVID secure.
This started a flurry of consultation and consideration from employers, and many a LinkedIn post of an intrepid senior manager, marking their successful voyage to the nicely sanitised office for the first time in 5 months, and remarking on how much they actually liked their colleagues after all.
The guidance in Wales has never wavered from “if you can work from home you should”. However, there is anecdotal evidence that UK wide operations have started to open up Welsh offices, if a few weeks behind their English counterparts.
The intrepid explorers of the sanitised offices and sense of normality they portrayed have been dealt a blow by Boris Johnson’s announcement on Tuesday 22nd September, as England is preparing for a winter of tighter restrictions on life and work, with the other countries broadly following suit.
The guidance note produced by the government to accompany the briefing can be seen here - https://www.gov.uk/government/news/coronavirus-covid-19-what-has-changed-22-september
The precise wording on working from home is as follows:
To help contain the virus, office workers who can work effectively from home should do so over the winter. Where an employer, in consultation with their employee, judges an employee can carry out their normal duties from home they should do so. Public sector employees working in essential services, including education settings, should continue to go into work where necessary. Anyone else who cannot work from home should go to their place of work. The risk of transmission can be substantially reduced if COVID-19 secure guidelines are followed closely. Extra consideration should be given to those people at higher risk.
So on the face of it England is now U-turning to match the pre 1st August position, and the position that Wales has maintained, which is “If you can work from home you should”. The wording of the guidance could offer wriggle room if employers and employees use their judgement on whether the employee can carry out their normal duties at home. In March, it felt like there was no option but to work from home, however productivity was dented; although this wording appears a little more nuanced, particularly as there will be demonstrably COVID secure offices in place.
With approximately 13 Million of the UK population under some sort of local lockdown, and a second wave upon us maybe the nation’s mood will return to the March lockdown, with a nervousness to consider returning to the office in the current COVID climate. We know that city centre employers have an issue with nervousness in using public transport, which will add to the anxiety.
As an employer in Wales, nothing has changed. As an employer in England, it would appear that the steps taken to return to the office will now need to be put on ice for the time being.