Government warned not to pressurise staff back into offices

In response to a campaign that could suggest those not returning are more at risk of redundancy, experts urge firms to maintain flexible working options 

The government has been urged not to pressure employees to return to the workplace before they are ready, as it prepares to launch a campaign later this week encouraging staff to go back to their offices. 

The Cabinet Office is expected to launch an advertising campaign this week urging employers to reassure staff it is safe to return and highlighting workplace safety measures they’ve taken to halt the spread of the virus. 

The media campaign will coincide with many schools in England and Wales reopening for the autumn term, which has made it in theory more feasible for parents to physically return to work.

Ministers will also reportedly emphasise the negatives of working from home, warning that workers were more vulnerable to redundancy if not at their desks. A government source told The Telegraph: "People need to understand that working from home isn't the benign option it seems. We need workers to be alert to what decisions their bosses may take in the weeks ahead. If they are only seeing workers once a fortnight then that could prove problematic for some employees in the future.

"We want employees to be careful what working arrangements they accept. Suddenly the word 'restricted' is bandied about and people who have been working from home find themselves in the most vulnerable position."

However, Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, said employees should not be forced into going back to the office. Responding to the planned launch of the campaign, Cheese said: "The government’s drive for individuals to return to their workplace should not leave them feeling pressured or duty-bound to do so.

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“As we have been consistently advising, any employer contemplating such a return should only do so by using the following three considerations: is returning to the workplace essential? Is it sufficiently safe to do so? Is it mutually agreed with the worker?”

He added that effective test and trace systems were key for a safe return to workplaces, and people who were asked to self-isolate should receive adequate compensation so not penalised financially.

On Friday (28 August), transport secretary Grant Shapps called for “common sense” among employers and employees. He said the government’s message to workers was that “it [was] now safe to go back” to offices, adding: “Your employer should have made arrangements that are appropriate to make sure it is coronavirus-safe to work.”

Speaking this morning (1 September) on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, environment secretary George Eustice indicated the government’s back-to-work drive would focus on the reassurance that workplaces were safe. The campaign would highlight messages about making offices Covid secure and encourage safe means of commuting to and from work, rather than forcing staff to return to office buildings, he said.

Eustice said employers would have to make sure people came back “in a socially distanced way”, which meant they “may not have the capacity to have a full return for everyone to the office”. He added: “It may be that some people work from home some days and come in on some days, but we do want to start getting more people back into an office environment.”

But despite the government’s renewed focus on this, a recent poll of 5,000 workers and 2,000 employers by Huma found more than half (54 per cent) were still reluctant to return to work because of concerns they might contract coronavirus.

Of the employees who had returned, the study found more than half (57 per cent) were not confident about the safety measures put in place, and almost a third of those who had not returned (29 per cent) also lacked confidence in their employer’s ability to keep them safe.

Last week Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, outgoing director-general of the CBI, said businesses needed the government – nationally and locally – to do more to build confidence around getting people back into offices and workplaces. She warned widespread remote working risked turning commercial centres into “ghost towns”, killing off those local businesses and jobs dependent on office workers.

However, a recent survey of HR professionals conducted by People Management found the majority welcomed being given the freedom to choose whether to reopen offices. Of the 463 readers polled, two-thirds (66 per cent) said it was the right decision to let businesses decide whether it was safe to bring staff back to the office, compared to 21 per cent who said it wasn’t (another 13 per cent said they didn’t know).

Caroline Waters, interim chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), said the Covid-19 crisis had seen many employers “rip up the red tape and scale up” their remote working practices, meaning many employers might continue with a more flexible approach beyond the pandemic.

“This has presented an opportunity to drive up flexibility for everyone, unlocking more career opportunities for disabled people and helping people to balance the complexity of working from home with caring responsibilities and family life,” Waters said. “Reopening offices does not need to mean the end of home working, and there should be no question of people’s jobs being vulnerable if they do not return to the office.”

The EHRC urged the government to bring forward its planned consultation on flexible working and reiterated calls for it to be the ‘default’ for all job roles, unless there was a genuine business reason not to. 

The majority of businesses polled by People Management planned to hang on to the more flexible way of working introduced by the pandemic. Two-fifths of employers (43 per cent) expected to offer staff significantly more options for remote, home and flexible working once the crisis had abated, with an additional 47 per cent saying they would to some or a limited extent.

Similarly, 53 per cent of respondents said they anticipated reducing their office footprint in the long term following the crisis, with another 17 per cent saying they expected a limited reduction.