It’s time to get back to the fluorescent lights, the lingering smell of instant coffee and the cheap carpet tiles we lovingly refer to as ‘the office’, but as reluctant as we were to leave, some of us are just as reluctant to return.

Jez Staley, the Group CEO of Barclays said last year that ‘the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past.’

The Chairman and CEO of the group that owns Oreo, Ritz, Cadbury, Toblerone, Milka and Trident Gum with 90,000 on the payroll suggested that ‘maybe we don’t need all the offices we have around the world’ andalmost all of the 50 biggest employers in the UK have said they don’t plan to bring staff back into the office full time. The UK boss of Citigroup said ‘business works best from being together’ but will only have staff back for three days a week.

However David Solomon, chief executive of Goldman Sachs described working from home as ‘an aberration’ and wants his staff back in the office as soon as they are allowed.

A New Start or The End of An Era?

It’s hard to know. In the space of eight weeks back in March 2020 the office-based workforce moved into spare bedrooms and onto kitchen tables. Sixteen months later, the government is removing restrictions and many businesses are expecting staff back into the very place they didn’t want to leave in the first place but who are now in two minds about going back. Oh, the irony…

Laura Blackwell, a digital marketing manager in Cornwall says that working from home ‘just makes sense’ and is ‘a bit on the fence about returning to the office’ whereas Adam Jones, a salesman for a media company is desperate to get back into the office full-time despite the company he works for saying it’s not mandatory.

Living in a shared flat, he worked from his bedroom sitting on a box with his computer on an ironing board and he is certain returning to the office will benefit his mental health. ‘There is just no question I work better coming in [to the office], getting a coffee, having a little chat.’

So Laura wants to stay at home, Adam wants to go back and then there’s Ingrid Temmerman, an executive assistant at Imperial College London who pitches right in the middle.

Despite never thinking she would, she has loved working alone. ‘It has given me so much scope for learning more about ‘me’ and my ability to adapt to severe change.’ She says she’s more productive, happier and healthier. She’s saved a fortune on travel and lunches, she can meditate when she feels stress or anxiety (something she could never do in the office) and like most of us, she doesn’t miss the tiresome office politics.

How are you feeling about the impending return to the office?

Now we’re at another critical point in the evolution of the worst health crisis in living memory, we all have the same questions for our employers…

Question 1: Do I Have To Go Back Into the Office?

Ultimately’, says Shah Qureshi, head of employment at law firm Irwin Mitchell, ‘the answer is yes’. Your employer can tell you to work from your office (and interestingly, as the law currently stands there’s no legal right for an employee to work from home), however it’s not that simple.

He goes on to say that ‘employers have an obligation to ensure that there is a safe working environment, a safe workplace, to which an employee returns’ . Essentially what he’s saying is that your boss has a duty of care to ensure your workplace is as safe as possible for you to return and if you do have any doubts or questions, you’re well within your rights to raise them.

Question 2: If I Do Have To Go Back, Will I Be Safe?

The government’s current guidelines state that employers should complete a Covid-19 risk assessment and take appropriate steps to prevent transmission but perhaps more importantly, it’s the responsibility of the employer (in a moral sense rather than legally) to ensure his or her staff feel confident to return to work.

Question 3: Are You Aware of the Transmission Rates In The Area?

Not only do employers need to put sanitisers around every corner, there’s a more holistic element of the pandemic they need to be aware of. The current impact and trajectory of the virus should help to guide decision making and reopening criteria must be fluid based on whether infections and deaths are increasing or decreasing in the area where the office is.

Question 4: Will I Be Able To Employ Social (Physical) Distancing During The Day?

Scientifically speaking, coronavirus is transmitted by aerosolised droplets that are affected by gravity after around five feet of travel so a distance of at least six feet (2m) is important to limit transmission. From a working standpoint, the most important part of the question is ‘during the day’.

Sitting at desks six feet apart is easy. What will prove to be harder to control is people using the toilets, the kitchen, lifts or the car park. This may mean staggering work schedules or controlling the number of people in the office at any given time. It’s important your employer lets you know what they are doing to maintain (wherever possible) a six feet distance.

Question 5: How Will The Office Be Reconfigured?

As awful as it sounds, a return to the awful 1990s cube farm may be the answer, at least in the short term. Barriers will help, as will moving desks further away from each other and away from the direct flow of air conditioning vents. If windows can be opened, a well-ventilated space pushes the internal air outside and there is also the option to install high-efficiency air filters.

Question 6: Will The Office Be Sanitised?

A deep clean before everyone comes back is wise and there should be a visit to Amazon to get sanitiser onto everyone’s desk. Further to that, the high-touch areas such as lift buttons, taps, handrails, doorknobs and toilet facilities should be sanitised continuously and there should be no let up in the frequency we should be washing our hands.

Question 7: Will I Need To Wear A Face Mask?

The government guidelines say that from July 19th, wearing a mask is personal preference but it’s wise to remember that wearing a mask is for the protection of others, not yourself so find out what your company policy is around mask wearing (and, if you’re in a shared building, the policy of the landlord).

It appears that wearing a mask on public transport will remain mandatory for the time being but it really is down to your boss to decide what he or she wants to do.

Question 8: What Should I Do If I’m a Carer, Or Ill, Or Have Been Exposed?

It’s almost impossible to believe that an employer is going to make you come into the office if you tick any of these boxes but statistics do suggest that there are those who will go in even if they don’t feel well for fear of not getting the job done or worse.

Now is not the time to be a hero. In fact it’s far more heroic to stay off if you’re ill. Instant Covid tests are available at almost every pharmacy and as you’ve been working from home for well over a year, another couple of weeks won’t hurt.

Question 9: For Those Of Us Who Are In, How Are You Monitoring Our Health?

For many, the biggest fear is staying Covid-free for sixteen months and as soon as you’re back in the office surrounded by people again, coming down with it. Your employer will need to demonstrate a series of very clear steps that will be taken in the event someone gets infected.

Some will do daily (or even half-daily) temperature checks and some will go as far as implementing software to track movements or body temperature. However, this doesn’t sit comfortably with a lot of people and there are very strict rules on workplace privacy so if they do insist on it, you’re free to ask questions about the business justification for using it and even consult a lawyer if necessary.

Question 10: Will Training Be Offered To Help Us Navigate The New Rules?

Ironically, it may be on Zoom before you all get back into the office but it’s not reasonable for you to show up on day one and be expected to know exactly what’s going on. Even if they don’t give training per se, a company-wide email with clear and concise guidance notes should be offered.

It says that they are taking your safety seriously and also that they’re working hard to ensure you all buy-in to what they’re trying to do for you.

Now What?

These are questions that you have an absolute right to ask and if you don’t like the answers to any of them, raise it with your line manager or HR department in writing and keep copies of everything you send and receive.

Remember though, this is a very tough time for everyone and the people you work for are working hard to ensure that you’re as safe as possible when you come back to work.

The idea of workplace safety has taken on a whole new meaning and it’s perfectly reasonable that you’ll want to know that you’ll be safe when you go back to work.

Oftentimes, disasters like Covid-19 lead to changes that with hindsight would have been a good idea in the first place but the more your employers commit to, the better everyone will be, the more productive you’ll be and the more profitable the business will be.

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