Could Government make WFH default option?

Downing Street has confirmed the Government is considering legislation that would offer a right to work from home to all employees after the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. A look at the debate.

Waterloo station during rush hour (Photo: Matt Taylor via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Waterloo, Britain's largest and busiest train station during the first Lockdown (Photo: Matt Taylor via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

By Annette McGill

Earlier this month, a document leaked to the Politico website  suggested that the Government will not tell people to go back to the workplace after the pandemic restrictions are lifted on July 19.

The document suggested that new legislation would give workers get the right to work from home as a 'default' option. 

Since then, the Downing Street press office has since confirmed a task force is "considering" a range of  flexible working options.

 At the start of lockdown in March 2020, the Government issued guidance that anyone who could work from home should do so. This guidance was expected to be lifted when the UK transitions to Stage Four of the Coronavirus roadmap. Stage 4 has now been postponed from June 21 to July 19.

The recent Charity FM webinar on Roadmaps out of Lockdown saw charity facilities managers sharing their preparations for re-opening offices and their plans for a gradual return to the workplace over the summer and into the autumn. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically sped up the trend towards more flexible working arrangements and organisations have been considering many options for a return to normal working, including offering various combinations of flexible and hybrid working. Many charities were launching consultations with staff about how to manage new working patterns.

Many people want to continue working from home. A YouGov survey in April 2021 found that one in five employees wanted to work from home full time after the pandemic. The survey also found that more than a third of respondents wanted to work from home some of the time. 

Mixed response from employers

Employers are responding to the new ways of thinking about working environments. A recent survey by the Institute of Directors found that 63 per cent of their members said they intended to shift to working from home for office-based workers for between one and four days a week.

Introducing legislation to support the right to working from home would be a step further, and the idea has met with a mixed response.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has called for a change in the law to allow all employees to request flexible working a right from the start of their employment.

Concerns about town centres

In the other corner are many industry leaders and particularly those who work in the so-called ‘sandwich economy’, the businesses who depend on workers coming into towns and cities. A recent report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) says shops, pubs and restaurants have lost billions of spending since March 2020. The CEBR estimates that purchases in the city centres of  London, Manchester, Glasgow, Newcastle and Cardiff will fall by a combined £322 million per month if office workers continue to spend at least part of the week at home.

The former boss of the UK's largest business lobby group, the CBI, has warned of 'Zombie Britain' if WFH becomes the new normal. Digby Jones wrote in the Daily Mail: "If office workers are given the right to so-called 'flexible working', our town and city centres will die, local tax revenues will evaporate, transport systems will collapse and productivity will fall." 

Tempting people back to the office

Some big corporations, including Google and Amazon, have indicated that they expect a full return to the office and are gearing up to make their offices more attractive environments for workers. Reports suggest that Google is remodelling its offices and installing a basketball court and a rooftop running track at it’s HQ in London’s King’s Cross, for example.

The City of London Corporation has called for workers to return and has launched a £50m COVID Business Recovery Fund to support businesses that "contribute to the City's vibrancy at street level" and provide services to returning City workers and residents.

Work anywhere - work nowhere?

Finaly, a report issued by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change said that unless more and better infrastructure was put in place to support flexible working, up to 6m UK 'anywhere jobs' could be moved overseas. The former Prime Minister's think tank warned that businesses, especially larger corporations, "may opt to employ only the core staff required for in-person collaboration and decision-making while outsourcing and offshoring those who are not."