Your country needs you, get back to the office

Does Britain’s fragile economy really hang on a classic club sandwich and a cappuccino?

A wannabe Churchillian figure hovers in the corridors of power leading the battle against coronavirus. “We will fight them in the offices, we fill fight them in the bistros,” he mutters as he points home workers back to their offices.

But is the urge to get ‘back to normal’ a little premature? Some think so.

Government repeatedly has said its decision-making around COVID-19 was based on science. That may be the case when it is convenient. But Professor Chris Whitty, the government’s top white coat, doesn’t think so. He is hampering the Government’s return to work message.

Frank Nigriello, Unipart

Cabinet sources told The Telegraph that ministers believe Whitty could leave his post as Chief Medical Officer if they push too hard on their plans to reopen workplaces to get the economy moving.

His scientific bookend, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, agreed. He said there was “no reason” to alter the Government’s policy of encouraging people to work from home.

However, The Telegraph reports that the PM has insisted the Government is following the latest science in designing its safety measures and stressed the importance of “getting our overall economy moving again”.

He also claimed workers are returning to the office in “huge numbers”, but Downing Street was unable to back that up with data on what proportion of the workforce had returned to the office.

In fact, research by Morgan Stanley found that the UK is lagging well behind other countries in terms of workers returning to their desks.

Only a third of office staff have gone back, well behind most of Europe. Some two-thirds of Britons working from home would like to do more in the future, while 55 percent say they’ll be OK with hotdesking after the pandemic.

The Evening Standard reported that an unnamed government source suggested that those opting to keep working from home could make themselves “vulnerable” to redundancy in any post-Covid business shake-ups.

The Labour Shadow Minister for Business and Consumers, Lucy Powell, was quick to fire back by saying that “forcing people to choose between their health and their job is unconscionable.”

We all know that the economy has caught a really bad cold. Unemployment has increased during the pandemic, and the UK’s GDP has been hit by the worst retraction in 41 years.

The number of UK payroll employees fell by 650,000 in June compared with March, a 2.2 per cent fall, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics based on tax data. Over the three months to the end of May there were 178,000 fewer self-employed workers compared with the previous quarter.

Amongst the worst hit have been the hospitality and consumer industries, poleaxed by social distancing.

The Centre for Retail Research has predicted that more than 20,000 individual shops will close this year, with the loss of more than 235,000 jobs, up from 143,000 last year.

Data from Springboard showed that footfall in shopping malls was down 42 per cent from last year’s level in July. The footfall in retail parks was half that. It’s questionable as to what has had the greatest impact: pandemic or Amazon?

According to the government, Britain relies on its low paid, fast food enterprises. “Social activities – going out for a meal, going to the cinema, shopping – those kinds of things comprise a much larger share of our economy than they do for most of our European comparator countries,” said Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

Offices lying empty in the city
Offices lying empty in the city

Unfortunately, the focus of the government’s strategy continues to be focused on the capital and a few large urban centres where the proliferation of Prets and Starbucks and McDonalds hangs on getting office workers back to their high-rise buildings armed with a coffee, a Danish and, hopefully, a pf2 mask.

But is that where productivity lies?

People working from home are spending nearly an hour more at their desk each day, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Nine out of ten of them would like to continue it even if they work longer hours.

The cost and time of commuting is eradicated, and firms are embracing technologies like cloud computing that will help to boost productivity. While commercial property landlords may grouse, reducing the overhead of office space could make UK firms more competitive at a time when cash is king.

Should we now be re-assessing the shape of a new economy for sustainable growth by encouraging, enabling and enhancing ways in which knowledge workers can connect and create better, faster and cheaper than they could pre-pandemic?

Or is the answer piling people into offices surrounded by two metre tape boundaries and hand cleansing stations?

By the way, if you’re popping down to Costa, mine’s a cappuccino. And please don’t cough in the lift.

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