By Jack Needham for Wired
A survey from Morgan Stanley’s research unit AlphaWise, conducted in mid-July, found that only 34 per cent of UK ‘white-collar’ workers had returned to work, and for city workers that’s only one in six. As the BBC also reports, 50 of the biggest UK employers have no plans to ask all staff to the office full-time in the near future.
Workplace anxiety may be the driving factor in this. A ManpowerGroup survey, published last week but carried out in June, found that staff in the US and UK were both less confident about returning to work and more fearful of a second Covid-19 wave compared to Germany, France, Italy, Mexico, Singapore and Spain.
It begs the question, why return at all? Sally Carthy, director of client services at the Stafford firm Carthy Accountants, recently took the decision to get her team of 15 back into the office. She points to a few reasons why. After months of virtual meetings Zoom fatigue had set in deep – “our clients wanted to come into the office to see people,” she says – and almost half of her team requested to be back at their desk before their proposed return date of August 3, yearning for the “camaraderie” Carthy says the office provides.
Some staff members lived by themselves and found their lockdown 9-5 far too lonely, says Carthy, and others in the early stages of their careers felt they were lacking guidance and supervision.
For the most part it’s been business as usual, with the only major changes being an office one way system and extra cleaning duties. Still, Carthy experienced some pushback from staff. “Some found working at home to be enjoyable, became very used to working in home clothes and expressed some reluctance to return to the office,” says Carthy. “They all came back without too much trouble.”
Returning to the office was compulsory for staff, however Carthy says she “would have responded appropriately had anyone had specific health or other reasons for not returning”.
Given that they have worked productively from home since March, many office workers may believe the rush to go back to the office is pointless.
The figures are persuasive: although working from home fatigue is setting in, a study from social media platform Buffer, and job site AngelList! found that 98 per cent of people would like the option to work remotely for the rest of their careers. That may be down to increased productivity, a better work-life balance or the fact that, as a recent survey conducted by Culture Shift found, 26 per cent of tech workers are receiving passive-aggressive comments less often.
Working from home also helps stop the spread of the virus. A study from the University of Sussex found that a 30 per cent reduction in workplace interactions is forecasted to result in a 62 per cent reduction in new infections and a 54 per cent reduction in new deaths by the end of 2020, compared with no additional interventions.
Nobody wants to breath recycled air during a pandemic but raising safety concerns to a superior is a daunting task, and convincing your boss to let you stay at home and avoid a packed 7am pacer train is a hard sell. Can you refuse to return?
“If an employee is worried about catching coronavirus by going into work then they should talk to their employer as early as possible and discuss what options may be available,” says Tom Neil, senior adviser at ACAS, an independent advisory for employer and employee rights.
Neil suggests that this could include continued working from home, changing working hours or looking at other flexible working arrangements. If concerns can’t be resolved through an informal chat then it is possible for employees to raise a formal grievance, which must be followed if an organisation has a grievance procedure.
Concerned employees can also contact their HR department or union, if they have them.
To avoid staff mutineers, Laura Kearsley, partner & solicitor at Nelsons law firm, suggests that employers must be open with employees about safety measures, share risk assessments to reassure employees and take employee concerns on board before the doors open. “This is likely to be more effective than a blanket instruction to attend or an outright refusal to do so,” she says.
If all that fails, however, then the law is on the side of the employer. “Employees will usually be in breach of their employment contract if they refuse to attend work,” says Neil. “If an employee refuses to attend work without a valid reason it could result in disciplinary action.”
Ultimately, the employers have the power, so the best advice is to hope yours are good ones. If they’re not, then employees may be nervous about approaching the question of working from home for fear of retaliation, which could have wider consequences.
“Covid morbidity is going right under the radar in many cases,” says Andrew Watterson, professor of health sciences at the university of Stirling. He explains how staff who are forced to return to the office may not disclose Covid symptoms for fear of dismissal or loss of work, especially those in precarious or zero hour jobs. “There are good employers, but the bad ones may force workers to cover up sickness because sick pay is poor, benefit support is inadequate and furloughing and other schemes are ending.”
This could put employees in “double jeopardy” says Watterson, placing them at risk of contracting the virus in offices while encouraging them to continue working when sick. But rushed return to work measures could also hit businesses where it hurts: financially.
If an employee contracts Covid in the workplace they may be entitled to take their employer to civil court for negligence or harm caused in the workplace. A successful case would be difficult to achieve, though. An employee would need to prove they had been exposed to Covid in their workplace and Covid-19 is not yet classed as an occupational disease which, if it were, would help workers gain compensation if they contract it.
Within this minefield of grey area legislation and workplace pressure, people have little option to follow the rules and avoid posting incriminating evidence on social media.