Is there a stranger creature born of this pandemic than the slavering office obsessive? The kind of person who glorifies the five-day week and longs for an end to home working, insisting that office attendance means greater productivity (an idea that has repeatedly been disproved).
Their figureheads tend to be some of the more divisive characters in business, such as Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin and businessman-cum-reality star Alan Sugar. They are resistant to the idea that another, better work life is possible, and to a future where workers have more free time at the cost of their vested interests.
While the spike in Omicron cases at the start of December cut these people’s dreams short – as home-working rules were reinstated by the government – their pain has been short-lived. As of Thursday (20 January), work from home orders in England have been scrapped. Addressing the House of Commons last Wednesday, Boris Johnson said workers “should now speak to their employers about arrangements for returning to the office”. (In the rest of the UK, though, people have been told to continue to work from home if they can).
Unsurprisingly, Johnson’s language suggests staff should be going back to an office, rather than having a choice. This government’s position has, since the summer of 2020, been staunchly pro-office. This helps it appear pro-business – aiding economic recovery and saving Pret – and makes it easier to withhold support for industries such as hospitality hit hardest by people staying at home. It also makes it seem as if ministers have ended the pandemic and that everything is, somehow, back to normal.
When the government has encouraged returning to the office in the past (most prominently in July 2020 and September 2021), either case numbers were extremely low or most of the population was recently vaccinated. While case numbers are currently dropping, deaths are still high and the NHS has tens of thousands of Covid patients in hospital on top of the usual winter pressures. So why remove restrictions now?
While Johnson’s government broadly had the public’s support earlier in the pandemic, today it is dealing with near-daily scandals that have outraged the public. The sudden move away from Plan B measures seems more like a distraction, or a bid for public favour, rather than being founded in a sincere belief that caution is no longer required.
The result is that many workers are being told to go back to the office at a time when they have a greater risk of catching Covid than ever before. Employees at some organisations could face severe repercussions – including job losses – if they refuse to return to the office.
It’s easy to see the current decision-making for what it is: political, not scientific. Employers, backed by a government mandate, may argue that the relative mildness of the Omicron variant is a good enough reason to insist employees return. But this fails to consider the reality for many workers: some are especially vulnerable, others have vulnerable people in their household, and vaccine effectiveness is waning for everyone. There are risks even for the young and vaccinated, such as a lack of sick pay if they do fall ill and the threat of long Covid. These were valid concerns even when case numbers were significantly lower. Now, workers are in an even tougher position, despite having produced even more evidence that they can do their jobs just as well from home.
After two years, should people really be forced into an office at all? Let’s say the pandemic ended tomorrow: if workers prefer to work from home, and have proven that over 22 months they can do so, what’s the objection?
So many of the pandemic’s cultural shifts will be forgotten when it does finally end, but others cannot be undone. No matter how much bosses and managers may want a return to the old ways of working, many have realised that they prefer to cut out expensive commutes and kitchen small talk. The pushback against this reality from both employers and the government – especially right now – is a dangerous impediment to progress.