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Businesses split on the return of work from home rules

The spread of a new Covid variant has meant advice on working from home has changed once more but not all businesses are ready to shut down the office just yet

With the number of cases of the omicron variant on the rise across the UK, prime minister Boris Johnson announced the introduction of plan B measures to curb its spread.

As part of the tightening of restrictions, face masks are set to become compulsory in all indoor venues, except hospitality, Covid passes will be required to enter certain settings, such as nightclubs, and, from Monday, people will be asked to work from home again if they can.

Business groups were quick to criticise the timing of the rule changes. CBI chief policy director Matthew Fell described the new restrictions as a “big setback for businesses”. He adds: “Omicron will quite likely not be the last variant. We need to create consistency in our approach and build confidence by reducing the oscillation between normal life and restrictions.”

Similarly, British Chambers of Commerce president Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith says: “Yet again, firms are now being asked to make changes at the very last minute. Many businesses have only just begun to get back on their feet and this move will inevitably damage business confidence.” 

Some offices remaining open

For most businesses, outside the hospitality and retail sectors, the biggest change will be the return of home working. While many organisations have transitioned to a hybrid arrangement, with employees commuting into work a few days a week, the new guidance recommends home working takes priority, in order to reduce the number of contacts people have. This is a move that McGregor-Smith claims “will come at a huge cost to swathes of businesses”.

However, Johnson’s instruction to “go to work if you must but work from home if you can” appears to be less strict than the mandate to work from home “unless you are unable to” that was in place during the height of the pandemic.

Jo Mackie, an employment lawyer for Slater and Gordon, says that she has already received some enquiries from employees in regards to whether they can still be asked to go into the office. She says: “The general rule stays the same: if you can work from home, you should, unless employers can give a good business reason for certain staff to come in.”

Some organisations have already said they will be leaving their premises open for employees, if they wish to travel in. In response to Wednesday’s announcement, PwC chairman Kevin Ellis said that the company’s offices “will remain open for our people who have a business or personal need to use them”.

JP Morgan Chase, which was one of the first companies to encourage a return to the office following the lifting of restrictions in the UK, will also ensure its buildings are accessible for those that need to work from the office. But an internal memo to colleagues notes that the company expects a reduction in the amount of people coming in as its teams are asked to reassess who can work from home more regularly. 

Other businesses are conscious of the impacts that previous lockdowns have had on their staff. Leeds-based digital marketing and PR agency Wolfenden will be allowing individuals to come into the office, despite the move to plan B. 

Managing director Daisy Wolfenden explains: “We are keeping our offices open for those who need to come in, whether for practical reasons or because their mental health suffers when working from home full time. This is something we learnt in the first lockdown as some of our staff really struggled mentally or didn’t have suitable setups at home to work effectively.” 

WFH but parties can go ahead

After almost two years of developing remote working strategies, most organisations, such as Harper James Solicitors, are well prepared for these plan B restrictions. Its CEO Toby Harper claims that the new changes “will not disrupt our business” and he doesn’t expect to see “any impact on our productivity following the move to plan B”.

Similarly, Newcastle-based software firm Sage says that its flexible working practices make it well placed to enable employees to work from home, in line with the new government guidelines. However, its chief people officer Amanda Cusdin believes the government needs to “properly equip businesses for the short-term uncertainty and challenges that they face so we don’t undo the progress made towards recovery”.

With only two weeks left before Christmas, the bigger concern for many staff will be the impact these new rules will have on the office Christmas party. During the press conference, Johnson said Christmas parties shouldn’t be cancelled at this stage, as long as guidance is followed.

Despite this reassurance, many organisations have already taken measures into their own hands. Among them is insurance startup Urban Jungle, which was previously in favour of the return of in-person office work when restrictions were lifted earlier this year. 

Its chief of staff and operations Helen Hodges says: “Although our aim has always been to get everyone back into the office as soon and as safely as possible to build an office-centric culture, we anticipated that winter would be unpredictable - and we haven’t mandated that everyone has to come in.”

The company will now be holding a virtual Christmas party, with the hopes that a proper celebration can be scheduled for January. 

But, once again, this is an issue on which companies are split. JP Morgan will not be preventing end of year “work gatherings” from going ahead, instead stressing that teams “exercise caution and good judgement on the size and nature of the activity”. Likewise, Harper James Solicitors plans for its Christmas do to go ahead.

In spite of the different approaches businesses have taken in response to the government’s plan B measures, there will be one thing they’ll all wish for this Christmas: an end to uncertainty.

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