The motion has been bubbling away for a couple of weeks now – Boris Johnson wants to get everyone back into the office. Not just back to work, but actually, physically in the office.
It’s not without good reason.
One alarming report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), cited in the Guardian, warned that if people didn’t get back into the office, it could cost the UK economy £480billion.
That particular report is not available publicly but the premise makes sense. If workers didn’t return to the office, there would be no extra expenditure on commuting, whether that’s driving or using public transport; and no extra spending on the high street, for example because people are buying lunches or going for after work drinks.
Basic economics would suggest that it’s in everyone’s interest to return to the office as soon as possible – the extra spending would drag the economy upwards, which in turn means more jobs can be saved.
But in the middle of a pandemic? It’s not quite that easy.
In fact, Alex Brazier, Bank of England’s executive director for financial stability, strategy and risk, said a sudden return to work was just not possible. Instead, “we should expect a more phased return.”
There are plenty of reasons for this.
For many people, safety will be the biggest contributor towards their reluctance to return to the office.
The government has published guidance for making work environments safer, but it’s not enough that an office is Covid-secure.
For one, by commuting every day on public transport, you greatly increase the probability of catching coronavirus and other airborne diseases.
According to one 2018 study from the University of Bristol, the longer your commute and the busier the stations you pass through, the more likely you’ll catch flu-like illnesses.
And then there are your colleagues. Are they adhering to all the social distancing measures as strictly as you are? Maybe, maybe not. But it certainly adds to the anxiety around heading back to the office again.
For many, it’ll be coming up to six months since they were last in the office.
New routines will have been developed and many will no doubt have realised how much time, money and stress they’re saving by not commuting – and if that’s you, you’re probably not in a great rush to revert to the way things were.
For businesses, there are potential savings too. If having a remote team has been working well, and productivity hasn’t suffered, you may well be thinking about ditching the office to save on rent.
For some, this may be a much-needed way to save money – and there are already plenty of businesses moving in that direction.
What it means for you…
Unless the government starts offering tax incentives, it’s likely that businesses will only be encouraging employees to return to the office if it suits them financially. Unsurprisingly, rescuing the economy isn’t at the forefront of most business owners’ minds.
But whether you can say no to going back to the office is a bit of a grey area.
If it’s essential for you to be in the office, and it has been made Covid-secure, you’ll have few defences for saying no. And if you do, it may well lead to dismissal and it’s hard to know whether you’ll receive any compensation.
If you can work remotely, and already do, it’s slightly harder for your bosses to demand that you return to the office. They can still do so, of course, but you’ll likely have a bit more negotiating power around whether it’s full-time, part-time or on an ad hoc basis. Realistically, they’re also less likely to force you to return.
If you’re looking for advice around this, Citizens Advice Bureau is a good place to start.
You can also contact the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) if you have concerns about how Covid-secure your office is.
And finally, if you do end up in a dispute with your employer about going back to the office, Acas, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, may be able to offer support.
As for whether you should return to the office, only you can decide that.