Staff should start to return to offices where possible from next week to help the economy “get back to normal”, the UK’s Treasury secretary, Steve Barclay, has argued, saying businesses should liaise with employees to make them feel secure.
But with the government hoping for a widespread influx of staff to workplaces after the bank holiday weekend, the TUC said workers had to feel secure about coronavirus and that “just wagging fingers at people” would not work.
The head of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) said any significant return to workplaces depended on factors such as schools and public transport operating effectively, and called for clearer communication from the government.
Ministers are keen for more people to return to offices, not least to boost businesses in town and city centres, even if Downing Street has disowned reports last week that people could be warned they could be more likely to lose their jobs if they continued working from home.
Barclay said he had been “hugely impressed” by efforts made by businesses such as restaurants to make their workplaces safe, and said more firms needed to act.
“We’re keen to get people back in the office,” he told Times Radio. “We think that’s best for the economy, to get back to normal as part of our recovery.
“The whole purpose of the furlough scheme has been to retain that link between the employee and the business, and with people coming back as the furlough scheme starts to unwind. So we’re keen to see that take place. But clearly these are conversations that businesses will be having with their staff.”
Barclay said he accepted many staff would continue with flexible working patterns, saying this could bring some efficiencies, such as the rise in the use of online GP consultations.
“One of the consequence of the pandemic is that people will work in different ways,” he said. “Technology and how we use that to drive productivity is a good thing. So there will be changes in the way business operate.
“But at the same time there are some staff who want to get back into the office.”
Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, said that while many people wanted to stop working from home, there was also an “appetite for a bit more flexibility and freedom at work”.
She told Times Radio: “I think we should be going for the best of both. Most people enjoy the banter, the creativity of being with their workmates. But they want more flexibility in terms of their hours, and the ability to work from home on occasion.”
It was not helpful to “try and scare people back to work by threatening with the sack”, O’Grady said, saying people faced pressures such as transport and childcare. She added: “We need to sort out some of those practical issues before just wagging fingers at people and telling them to get back to work. It’s not that easy.”
Adam Marshall, the director general of the BCC, told the station that central to any return to work was “a mature conversation between individual business and their employees”.
But while trust between employers and staff was generally high, Marshall said, the government could be doing better, especially on communication.
He said: “What both companies and their employees are saying to us is, look, we’ll make that decision, but the government has got to get the basics right.
“They’ve got to make sure that schools reopen on time, that there’s wraparound childcare for parents who are in the workforce, that they’re comfortable with the level of public transport capacity, so those who are working in city centres can actually get to city centres.
“And more than anything else, what they want to hear from the government is calm, consistent and evidence-based communication about when it’s safe to return to work. I don’t think people have felt they’ve had that communication to date, and they’re going to want to see some more consistency before they move back to the office lock, stock and barrel.”
Source: The Guardian