Boris Johnson’s clarion call for the nation’s workforce to return to offices to save Britain’s economy will be treated with caution by swathes of employers and employees, they tell MailOnline.
The Prime Minister urged businesses operating remotely to ‘get back into work’ to breathe life back into the cash-starved high street and jump-start the recovery.
He and Chancellor Rishi Sunak are said to be aghast at the impact empty offices are having on town centre shops and restaurants – and worried that widespread homeworking is wrecking the UK’s productivity.
He said yesterday: ‘It’s very important that people should be going back to work if they can now.’
But employers who have spent months adapting to coronavirus lockdown are hesitant and say some of their workers do not want to return while the constantly changing guidance is creating confusion.
Companies have spent months overhauling to cope remotely – while simultaneously saving a fortune on lofty overheads such as rent and bills.
Instead of embracing a stampede back into the office, employers grappling with the PM’s announcement have told MailOnline they will tread cautiously.
The Prime Minister urged businesses operating remotely to ‘get back into work’ to breathe life back into the cash-starved high street and jump-start the recovery
Lowri Tan, managing director of baby food brand Little Tummy, which pre-pandemic operated from an office in Soho, said the fledgling company would not be returning.
While acknowledging the benefits of office camaraderie, she said the small team had managed well during the crisis.
She told MailOnline: ‘The driving factor is definitely the money. As a small company, without having the fixed overheads and expenditure, it’s not a wise use of company resources when we know we can operate efficiently at home.’
Ian Girling, chief executive Dorset Chamber of Commerce, said Ms Tan’s mindset was in lockstep with firms across the country.
He told MailOnline: ‘As a result of the pandemic businesses will have to think about all of their future working arrangements, and this could be a challenge for businesses juggling the need to have people in the office or working remotely from home.
‘Undoubtedly, remote working has worked extremely well for some businesses and there are opportunities for some firms to save money going forward.’
Richard Lim, chief executive of Retail Economics, said this was a ‘critical’ factor for businesses considering whether to return to the office.
He said bosses would weigh up whether the supposed productivity boost outweighed the savings which many have enjoyed during the pandemic.
The expert told MailOnline: ‘That’s an absolutely critical point – whether the levels of demand are sufficient enough to make it commercially viable enough to reopen. And that’s a really difficult question to answer and lots just don’t know.’
Richard Lim, chief executive of Retail Economics, told Mail Online a ‘critical’ consideration for businesses grappling with whether to return to the office was whether it was worth it
An employee at a central London firm which has over 200 staff told MailOnline they were told last week their workforce would not be returning to the office for the foreseeable future.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity the source said: ‘The primary concern is that we don’t need to be back so why rush?’
They said that the company would be waiting to see how other firms coped with the return to work before given the green light for their own staff.
Mr Lim said the crisis would have jolted a complete rethink for some firms who will keep some of their team working remotely to allow them to downsize and save money.
Explaining the mindset of such firms, Mr Lim said: ‘We probably don’t need the same amount of space as we did, out of necessity we managed to pivot our working way towards something which is much more digital focused and actually, given that rents are so expensive, if we have people coming in on average two-and-a-half days a week and people working from home two-and-a half days a week, we don’t need the space and it’ll make a significant saving for many companies.’
Lowri Tan (right), managing director of baby food brand Little Tummy, which pre-pandemic operated from an office in Soho, said the fledgling company would not be returning
Although the PM is trying to coax people back to work, he stressed that it has to be done safely to not to drive a second onslaught of the virus.
But Mr Girling accused him of ‘mixed messaging’, telling MailOnline: ‘The Prime Minister’s comments have once again been extremely confusing for businesses and employees.
‘The mixed messages are unhelpful when businesses are doing their utmost to adapt and survive in incredibly difficult circumstances.
‘It is clear that some employees will be keen to get back to the office while remote working has worked very well for others.
Mr Lim believes employees’ willingness to go back to work will vary depending on their daily commute.
The expert told MailOnline: ‘It’s such a case by case basis, I think there’s a real regional difference in companies’ strategies to get people back to work, and for employees to go back to work.
‘London, public transport, using the Tube is a very different situation to travelling by car.
‘Lots of people have different views about the risk of the virus, how willing they are to expose themselves to potential risk of catching it.’
But with many offices mothballed during the pandemic, especially smaller ones, many businesses will not have had time to refurbish with social distancing measures.
One employer, Dr Rakish Rana, managing director of The Clear Coach in London, told MailOnline the return to work next ween ‘can only be feasible if companies have put Covid safety measures in place’.
He added: ‘Hot-seating may not be an option right now, to limit exposure at work stations, so fixed labelled desks only.
‘Also traveling to offices may or be a strain on the public transport system riding further exposure.’
Mr Lim, an employer himself, said: ‘In some parts of my office I have space between desks, but in most cases I’ve arranged for people to come in on alternate days so there’s a natural two-metre space and we’ve just got cleaners who are coming in every day.’
Edwin Morgan, policy director at the Institute of Directors which represents many employers, said: ‘There’s a real mix between people wanting to return and people happy to stay.
‘Some directors will be keen to bring their teams back together but will be wary of health and safety ramifications, and we have to remember that the current guidance still encourages home-working wherever possible.
‘A significant proportion of our members say they intend to keep more remote working for the long run.’