Should offices stay open despite changed advice?

Government U-turn creates confusion among employers, with experts advising that workplaces do not need to close if attending is important for staff wellbeing

Yesterday’s ministerial U-turn on returning to workplaces has created confusion among employers about whether they are allowed to – and indeed should – keep offices open, experts have warned.

In a televised public address, prime minister Boris Johnson announced a reversal of previous advice given in July that workers should “start to go back to work now if [they] can”, with the responsibility for deciding whether it was safe to encourage this, and for making workplaces 'Covid secure', resting with employers themselves.

Instead, Johnson told MPs yesterday (22 September) that although “in key public services – and in all professions where home working is not possible, such as construction or retail – people should continue to attend their workplaces”, the government was now “once again asking office workers who can work from home to do so”. He said the restrictions were likely to be in place for six months.

But the announcement has created confusion among employers, many of whom had launched extensive plans to gradually and safely reopen their workplaces, with experts highlighting important considerations to make before abandoning these and asking staff to once again work from home.

Kathleen Heycock, partner at Farrer & Co, advised that the government’s latest direction was phrased as a request or guidance, which meant employers did not have to shut their offices. “More senior people with a fully kitted-out home office have to remember the more junior people cramped up with little space, a bad desk and poor lighting may be desperate to go into the office,” she said. “From what I have seen, allowing these people to continue to work in the office would not be unlawful.”

Heycock added: "The government has not helped itself on this. The messaging is confusing and there have been so many U-turns that people will feel unsure what is the right thing to do.”

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“It would be a shame if offices that had slowly and safely opened up now completely shut down. There are some people whose jobs don’t require them to be in the office, but for whom the office is the best place for them to work, even if only for a few days a week,” she said, adding that “this should still be the exception”.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, also highlighted the need to consider the wellbeing of those finding that home working negatively impacted their morale and productivity. 

"If someone is really struggling through stress or anxiety related to working from home and their wellbeing is supported by being in the workplace, then provided the workplace is as Covid resistant as possible, it is about working to meet individuals' choice and preference in terms of where and how they want to work,” he told People Management. 

As such, those employees unable to “do their job productively at home for whatever reason” should potentially be allowed to still return to the office, he said.

But he also highlighted the importance of respecting the health and safety reasons behind the changed recommendations: “At the moment, the guidance is that where people can work from home they should continue to do so. Only if there are specific reasons why individuals want to be in the workplace, which might be linked to wellbeing, then the judgement should be that's the best place overall.”

Sheila Attwood, managing editor for pay and HR practice at XpertHR, agreed that for those employers who were starting to bring people back into the office, “there are concerns around the motivation, engagement and wellbeing of staff now being asked to stay at home”.

“Employers should be mindful of the reasons that some staff are attending the workplace – maybe they have young children at home, or no suitable place to work – and consider whether a Covid-secure workplace would be the best place for them to be,” she said.

Many business body leaders have already publicly expressed their opposition to the government’s U-turn. Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, commented: “Renewed advice to work from home where possible will keep our town and city centres under great economic pressure, just as people were starting to make their way back,” adding that “businesses have bent over backwards to make their workplaces Covid secure and are ready to welcome staff back as soon as allowed”.

Dr Roger Barker, director of policy at the Institute of Directors, acknowledged that the spread of the virus wasn’t “wholly predictable”, but said the “back and forth on offices will cause frustration”. Similarly, Catherine McGuinness, policy chair for the City of London Corporation, said she was “disappointed at the blanket call for office workers to return to working from home where possible”. “Firms have taken huge steps to make sure that their offices are Covid secure,” she added.

However Gary Cookson, director of Epic HR, said the government’s current position is “probably the most sensible approach… and more or less represents what many organisations have been doing anyway, with some already set up to work remotely until 2021”.

“The about-face by the government suggests that its [previous position] of encouraging people back to work was based on false pretences. That didn’t make sense then and it makes less sense now,” he said.