Employers urged to be cautious as England’s work-from-home guidance relaxed

Experts warn against ‘pendulum swing’ approach to returning after Boris Johnson announced Plan B restrictions would be scaled back from next week

Experts have urged employers not to rush back to the office as the government announces its work-from-home guidance will come to an end in England, alongside other plan B restrictions, next Thursday (27 January).

Prime minister Boris Johnson also said that as part of the relaxation, face coverings will no longer be legally mandated in England from next week, although the government has advised people continue to wear them in enclosed and crowded spaces and when in contact with new people.

All requirements for organisations to require proof of vaccination and/or a negative test will also end in England at the same time.

So far no changes have been announced by any of the devolved governments.

Addressing Parliament yesterday, Johnson said that the Omicron wave of coronavirus had “peaked nationally”, adding that hospitalisations from the virus had begun to stabilise.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said that the new guidance will benefit employees and businesses, as face-to-face collaboration and social interaction will benefit professionals.

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However, he encouraged employers to continue to follow Covid-secure protocols as cases remained high, adding that organisations that have effectively implemented home working guidelines should continue to do so.

"We know that home working has generally been a success, with our research suggesting, overall, it’s led to improvements in people’s productivity and work-life balance… As a result, more employers are now looking at how to embed hybrid and other flexible working arrangements into their organisation in the long term,” Willmott said.

Simon Blake, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England, also encouraged managers to act with caution when returning to the office, warning against a “pendulum swing” between full home working and a permanent return to office working. 

“The next couple of weeks could well be a transitory moment for the workplace, and what works now might not necessarily work in three months’ time, or even a year… let’s not enforce rigid boundaries and instead of thinking forever, take a whole-organisation, fluid approach to workplace wellbeing.” he said.

According to the new guidelines, those who test positive for Covid will still be required to self-isolate, however, the period of isolation was reduced to five full days on Monday (17 January), as long as they can return two negative tests on days five and six.

The government said it would also consider ending the legal obligation to self-isolate following a positive test, which is set to expire on 24 March, and instead replacing it with non-compulsory guidelines, potentially even before that date. However, this would be subject to review.

The news comes as research revealed two-thirds of employees were likely to leave their job if they continue to get limited face-to-face contact with their line managers.

The research, from Robert Walters, which surveyed 4,000 white-collar professionals, also found half (48 per cent) said that fewer meetings and less interaction with their line manager has led to a dip in their output.

More than one in five (22 per cent) reported they do not communicate with their manager when working from home, up from just 3 per cent at the start of the pandemic.

Additionally, two-thirds (62 per cent) would be put off from a job offer if it were not delivered in person (face to face or in a video meeting), while 57 per cent said that a generic email offer would put them off and a third (33 per cent) said that a voicemail message would discourage them.

Toby Fowlston, CEO of Robert Walters and Walters People, called on businesses to ensure they have “face-to-face interaction where possible.”

“Professionals vying for progression want to show initiative, adaptability, and the ability to handle responsibility by themselves – and so by nature they won’t necessarily ask for more face time with their manager as they feel it works against the point they are trying to prove,” he said.

The results also revealed that half of professionals felt a lack of contact with their line manager meant they were being overlooked for new opportunities: 37 per cent said that it would affect their progression, and a quarter (26 per cent) said it led to fewer training opportunities.

Blake said that managers should have “non-judgemental” conversations about the best way forward for employees: “There is no space for a ‘one size fits all’ approach in the post-pandemic workplace, and if we have learnt anything from the last two years, it’s that things can change overnight.

“Let’s use the experience of the pandemic to really understand what our employees need and want to create equitable workplaces. Real flexibility and flexibility ‘done well’ is not just a reaction to trends, it is part of an overall mental health and wellbeing strategy for the organisation”, he said.