Experts call for clarity on returning staff to offices amid conflicting ministerial messages

PM suggests desk-based workers should now return to help the economy, sitting at odds with Hancock’s hints around a stronger legal right to home work

Boris Johnson has suggested employers should now ask office staff to return to work, in messaging that experts have highlighted conflicts both with current official guidance and a suggestion from health secretary Matt Hancock that the right to work from home could be more strongly enshrined in law.  

Speaking on ‘The People’s PMQs’ online on Friday (10 July), the prime minister hinted at a new strategy, saying people should “start to go to work now if [they] can”. He added: “I want to see more people feeling confident to use the shops, use the restaurants and get back into work – but only if we all follow the guidance.”

The apparent change in direction was prompted by the prime minister and chancellor Rishi Sunak being “aghast” at the impact empty offices were having on town centre shops and restaurants and of home working on productivity, according to the Daily Mail

However, the new messaging has been criticised for being confusing, as official government guidance remains that reasonable steps should be taken by employers to help employees work from home – and that, while they should go back to work if they can’t work from home, staff should still work from home if they can. 

Hannah Essex, co-executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce, told the Financial Times that many businesses would be “confused by hearing one thing from politicians, and seeing another in black and white in the official guidance”. She added that the UK was still a “long way off” a full return to normal working patterns. 

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Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, told People Management that businesses should continue to follow the official guidance as it was important to “continue to minimise the number of people in workplaces and using public transport, and consequently to manage and reduce the ongoing risk of infection”.

He added: “If the government plans to change this they should be very clear about any new advice to avoid confusion.” 

A CBI spokesperson told People Management that while “getting people back to work is the cornerstone of the UK’s recovery”, it must “be done safely, to avoid new lockdowns”. They added: “And it must be done with total clarity so that firms and employees know what to do.” They said that transparency and collaboration between government, business and unions would be “key” in the coming weeks.

Johnson’s remarks also seemed to conflict with a statement made at the end of last week by health secretary Matt Hancock, in which he suggested the right to work from home could be more strongly enshrined in law as a result of the pandemic, demonstrating how successful mass home working could be. Revealing the potential legal shake-up in a web chat with members of women’s club AllBright, Hancock said home working should be “the norm”. 

“We need to persuade people that allowing flexible working should continue. This is a change that is never going to go away,” he said, adding that this was something “good employers” should accommodate moving forward. Hancock also said the benefits of remote working, particularly for women, made it worth upholding beyond the pandemic. 

Currently, UK staff have the legal right to make a flexible working request if they've worked for their employer for at least 26 weeks, they’re legally classed as an employee and they’ve not made any other flexible working request in the last 12 months. But employers reserve the right to reject this on business grounds.

Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory at Peninsula, said it was important to remember there was no confirmation on this right being extended yet. She said the impact of a legal change in this area on HR would “depend on what form it takes”.  

Palmer speculated that extending this right could mean home working became an automatic right, or it could be similar to the current right to request flexible hours, which put the onus on the employer to approve or deny. 

“Some employers may be nervous at this prospect, but they should bear in mind that we have seen many changes over the past few months that employers across the country have had to respond to,” said Palmer, adding that this arrangement may not seem as “outlandish” as it would have done pre-Covid. 

Ranjit Dhindsa, head of employment at Fieldfisher, said many employees would find working from home more often post crisis an “attractive prospect” and that she “could see it gaining traction”. 

“It’s not just about being safe, it is a new way of working, and Covid has eroded a regular nine-to-five shift pattern,” said Dhindsa. She added that the impact on HR could be minimal because “it would be quite easy to amend the current flexible working laws to incorporate the right to work from home”. 

“I don’t think it would be a major legal policy issue, but it can’t be unlimited. It must be a right to request,” she added.

On the question of when – if ever – employers would officially be asked to return workers to the office, cabinet minister Michael Gove told Sky News on Sunday (12 July) that while in some cases it was appropriate and convenient for people to work from home, “we want to make sure that where people can add value, where the economy can benefit from people being at work, that they are at work”.

Johnson has also apparently asked business and City chiefs, including Goldman Sachs boss Richard Gnodde, to order more staff back to offices.   

But Willmott encouraged employers to continue using CIPD guidance on whether the work was “essential, safe and mutually agreed” as a framework for return to work decision-making. He added: "The key for employers is to ensure that people’s views are taken into consideration as far as possible and that all reasonable practical steps are taken to address their concerns.” 

Several firms have recently announced radically changed approaches to office versus home working as a result of lessons learned during the coronavirus crisis. In May Twitter told all its 5,000 staff, including those in the UK, it would be their decision whether they wanted to return to the office, meaning they could effectively work from home ‘forever’. 

Similarly, Shopify announced in May it would become “digital by default”, with founder and CEO Tobi Lütke tweeting that the Canadian-based company would keep “offices closed until 2021 so that [it could] rework them for this new reality”, but that most of its 5,000 staff would work remotely permanently.