Should we be going back into the office?

We, like many of our clients, are an office-based business. There are competing pressures on such businesses between keeping staff working from home and getting them back into the office, which I don’t propose to go into here. Boris Johnson has recently started trying to urge people back into their offices, in an attempt to boost businesses that are reliant on people being in their offices, such as public transport and lunch outlets.

But what is the government’s official position on this question? Should we be starting to allow the factors in favour of returning to the office to outweigh the factors against?

The government updated its guidance on “Working safely during Covid-19 in offices and contact centres” most recently on 17 July, a week after Boris Johnson issued his first exhortation. As you’d expect, the guidance contains recommendations on risk assessments, cleaning, PPE, social distancing, meetings etc. But perhaps the most important chapter for many is on how to make the decision whether staff should be in the office at all. It still lists a general objective that “everyone should work from home, unless they cannot work from home.”

The current guidance goes on to say that, in deciding whether staff should continue to work from home or go back to the offices, businesses should:

  • Consider who is needed to be on-site, for example:
    • Workers in roles critical for business and operational continuity, safe facility management, or regulatory requirements, which cannot be performed remotely; or
    • Workers in critical roles which might be performed remotely but who are unable to work remotely due to home circumstances or the unavailability of safe enabling equipment.
  • Plan for the minimum number of people needed on-site to operate safely and effectively.
  • Monitor the wellbeing of people who are working from home, helping them stay connected with the rest of the workforce, especially if the majority of their colleagues are on-site.
  • Keep in touch with off-site workers on their working arrangements, including welfare, mental and physical health and personal security.
  • Provide equipment for people to work at home safely and effectively, for example, remote access to work systems.

So currently we’re being told only to allow individuals back into offices if absolutely necessary for the proper functioning of a site or if they’re unable to work at home. This is very much at odds with the Prime Minister’s wishes, and he’s said that the guidance will be updated on 1 August. We can probably therefore expect that the above guidance will be reversed from 1 August, to a position where it is in favour of returning to the office.

There is no doubt that the guidance will still make any such return subject to numerous conditions, for example requiring risk assessments and social distancing.

Ignoring this guidance may expose employers to claims if they impose a situation that their staff aren’t happy with. It’s going to be a tricky trip back to normality, whatever that may now mean. For assistance with employment issues coming out of Covid-19, please contact Malcolm Mason on 07516 045756 or at malcolm.mason@ilaw.co.uk.