Cliff Taylor: New delays in reopening offices mean there is no going back to the old ways

Change has now been embedded long past a tipping point

Cliff Taylor: If there were bouncers in your workplace checking vaccine certs, a much fuller return would be possible. Photograph:  Nick Bradshaw

Cliff Taylor: If there were bouncers in your workplace checking vaccine certs, a much fuller return would be possible. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

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You can be asked for a vaccine certificate in plenty of places now – the restaurant, bar, concert, exhibition, nightclub or airport. But not in your workplace, where the legal view is clear – employers can’t go there. And so, no matter what protocols the Government dreams up to try to pretend that a gradual return to the office is progressing, the reality is that most people who can will continue to work from home until next February at least.

A gradual return by some employers had started in September and was due to accelerate next week. Now the drift back seen in the last month may hold – but the more widespread return of big employers, including the civil service, won’t happen. Employers can’t ask the vaccine status of staff – and so while employees can go out and socialise, cert in hand, and dance with 1,499 others at a gig, at work desks have to be socially distanced and colleagues can’t sit together in the canteen.

By next spring, most office workers will have been working from home for nearly two years. There will be no going back to the old ways. Old norms feel a long way off now

It all looks incoherent. But most employers look set to hold off until early 2022, rather than trying to navigate rules which say employees can be in for “specific business requirements” – whatever that means – but should generally work at home otherwise.

A few weeks ago, when numbers appeared stable, there was a general confidence that the high level of vaccination in the general population meant that offices could successfully reopen – with employees returning for part of the week – even with employers ignorant of the vaccine status of staff. Now the wind has changed and most office workers will continue to work from their back bedrooms.

Employers are increasingly asking why they can’t ask staff about their vaccine status, bar in a few limited situations such as the health sector. The anomalies are obvious. Someone can be asked for their vaccine cert heading into a restaurant or pub, but the owner of that premises can’t guarantee that the staff asking for certs or serving at tables are themselves vaccinated. This is an issue which isn’t going to go away anytime soon. If there were bouncers in your workplace checking vaccine certs, a much fuller return would be possible.

Businesses have generally got on fine working remotely, of course, and various international studies suggest productivity has held up. Face-to-face collaboration has suffered, of course, and while it is hard to measure the impact of this, many managers feel it is significant.

The further delay in the return to office work is now embedding change long past a “tipping point”. By next spring, most office workers will have been working from home for nearly two years. There will be no going back to the old ways. Old norms feel a long way off now. We know that flexible working can operate successfully and new patterns of living – in key areas such as childcare – have emerged.

And a key issue is the dramatic emergence of a skills shortage in many businesses. Companies who might in the past have pressurised people to work in the office are now going “softly, softly” because they are terrified of losing staff. The “Great Resignation” – people rethinking their lives and changing job or retiring post Covid-19 – is a reality for many businesses, and so is the job of holding on desperately to skilled staff. And the first question after “how much will you pay me?” from potential employees is now “can I work flexibly?”

There is no one flexible working solution appearing here or internationally. But the idea of a basic hybrid model – two days in and three out or visa versa – doesn’t seem to get the sense of where this is going. The direction will be towards people being required to turn up for specific things – training, collaboration and planning, for example – and having a choice of where to work for tasks that can be done remotely. There is no going back to the old days of presenteeism and two or three hours a day commuting.

There is more at stake in the return to the office than a bit of push and pull between employers and employees. It is one of the crunch issues in trying to map out a new normal

How this all lands will be really important. City centre economies are in the firing line for one thing. There has been an uplift in retail spending since September, but our city centres are well below any kind of “normality”. There is a huge job ahead here for Government and local authorities, because as wage subsidies and other supports are withdrawn, many small businesses which rely on city centre footfall will be in trouble. Two years of disappeared customers is way more than a temporary hiatus. The flip side is that suburbs and commuter towns are cashing in. Some of the pop-up coffee boxes will be sustainable businesses.

Working patterns are fundamental – part of the lifeblood of the economy and central to future planning. The forthcoming Climate Action Plan will underline the goal of having people live in more denser urban and town settings – in smaller dwellings – closer to where they work. It is seen as a vital step to reduce commuting and car use in favour of walking, cycling and public transport. But how will this sit in a world where many people are working remotely for much more of the time – and would like a bit more space?

There is more at stake in the return to the office than a bit of push and pull between employers and employees. It is one of the crunch issues in trying to map out a new normal. Another is how we all feel about returning to various recreational and social activities as the virus continues to circulate. This is obviously a big healthcare issue – given the rise in numbers – but also one with huge economic and social implications. Just because the nightclubs have reopened doesn’t mean we are going back to the way things were.

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