13th December 2021

Here we go again

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Bringing England into line with the rest of the UK, the Prime Minister’s announcement last week that we should all work from home if we can will, I’ve no doubt, have brought groans of despair from some and relieved smiles from others.

Plan B as it is called, is not a return to the full lockdown that we experienced last year, and there is more flexibility than we’ve had previously, but it will still bring concern and uncertainty to many businesses.  The guidance on GOV.UK says:

“Office workers who can work from home should do so from Monday 13 December. Anyone who cannot work from home should continue to go into work – for example, to access equipment necessary for their role or where their role must be completed in person. In-person working will be necessary in some cases to continue the effective and accessible delivery of some public services and private industries. If you need to continue to go into work, consider taking lateral flow tests regularly to manage your own risk and the risk to others.”

Many critics of the COVID restrictions have highlighted how damaging working from home can be to mental health for some people, but of course, that also works the other way, and I know of people who have been told to return to the office and have felt great anxiety about venturing onto public transport and into crowded areas after so many months avoiding these situations.

Balancing these conflicting, but equally legitimate, worries is going to be very difficult for employers who may need to offer a hybrid way of working to accommodate the government’s instruction to work from home, alongside further government guidance which says they must consider whether home working is appropriate for workers facing mental or physical health difficulties, or those with a particularly challenging home working environment.

And of course, we know what we’re doing this time round, as Peter Cheese chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development says: “Many businesses and their people have learned how to work remotely at scale and at speed during the pandemic so will be well placed to respond to this change in guidance. Reducing the number of people in workplaces when they can work from home is the sensible thing to do while infections are climbing and we’re still learning about Omicron, keeping individuals safe and businesses staffed.

“Where people can only do their jobs from a place of work, flexibility on how and when they work can help to minimise exposure to other people. Measures like flexible hours and staggered start times will help to avoid overcrowded spaces both on the commute and in the workplace – as will increased safety measures on site, such as changes to workplace configuration and requiring staff to wear masks in certain contexts

“The duty of care as employers extends to company organised social events as well. We’d encourage organisations to follow the spirit of today’s revised guidance and to avoid any in-person end of year parties, while recognising individuals are still free to meet in a personal capacity.”

But we need to remember that as office workers once more adapt to working from dining room tables, kitchen counters and bedroom dressing tables, the impact could be much more significant for our city centres.

Researchers at Sheffield University have suggested that Leeds city centre (you know I’m a Yorkshire girl!) will be the city most affected by homeworking outside London, with the local economy predicted to lose £35m. And that was before Plan B was announced. The study predicts that in 2022 the average worker will work an extra day at home compared to pre-COVID, which could mean city centres lose £3bn in revenue as a result of people spending less at coffee shops, on lunches, or shopping after work. Furthermore, across the country 77,000 hospitality and retail workers could be forced to relocate or lose their jobs completely.

If that was the prediction before the introduction of Plan B, and now we hear Plan C may be being drawn up behind the scenes, businesses must be devasted at the potential impact the Omicron variant is going to have on the economy, especially those in the hospitality sector who were desperate for a busy Christmas after the enormous challenges they’ve faced as a result of COVID.

We can only hope that the government doesn’t just issue advice on how we can beat Omicron, but also considers the financial support it must give to businesses now the furlough scheme has ended, and restrictions look as though they will only get tighter, with no apparent end in sight.

Photo by Paico Oficial on Unsplash

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