Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the office…

Artwork from the film Jaws II (Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock)

The Prime Minister dashed any hopes for a widespread return to the office when he once again advised employees to work from home where possible.

It followed weeks of the government urging people back to the workplace in order to boost economic recovery, and came as the coronavirus alert level was upgraded from three to four, meaning a high or rising level of virus transmission.

The new restrictions could remain in place for six months, Boris Johnson warned.

Business groups, advisers and industry experts have warned that this “yo-yo” advice on home working will cause disruption and confusion for the thousands of workers who have been encouraged back into ‘Covid-secure’ workplaces over the past couple of months, and could put a significant dent in the UK’s economic recovery.

British Chambers of Commerce director general Adam Marshall said businesses will need a “clear road map” for any restrictions that may be introduced in future so they can plan ahead.

“Businesses understand that further restrictions are necessary to tackle the rising number of coronavirus cases, but these measures will impact business and consumer confidence at a delicate time for the economy,” he said.

“Businesses, their employees and customers need to see a clear road map for the existing restrictions and those that may be introduced in the future. This must include transparent trigger points, and clarity about the support available to protect jobs and livelihoods.”

CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese warned the new measures would further restrict business activity, particularly in the sectors most affected by the virus.

“This is why there is a very strong case for the government to consider extending the furlough scheme – but with a focus on supporting the hardest hit sectors,” said Cheese.

‘Hammer blow’

Encouraging office workers to stay away from town centres could be the “final hammer blow” to some struggling businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors, so further support was needed to keep them afloat, said Milan Pandya, business advisory partner at advisory firm Blick Rothenberg.

“The previous basket of measures introduced at the start of the pandemic are being phased out in the coming months which was when the government thought normality would return. The resurgence of the virus has forced the government to act and revise these plans by at least six months, so the chancellor’s plans need to be revised as well,” said Pandya.

Businesses, their employees and customers need to see a clear road map for the existing restrictions and those that may be introduced in the future.” – Adam Marshall, BCC

“The government will therefore need to either extend the furlough scheme on a sector specific basis or bring in alternative measures to protect employment in these businesses – as the German and French Governments have done in medium-term seems the only sensible way. The alternative will undoubtedly be mass unemployment, which will particularly hit 16-24 year olds and potentially risk a lost generation.”

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “It’s clear that this pandemic will not be over by Christmas – so neither should state support for jobs. The PM says he will put his arms around the workforce. Let’s see him prove it.

“Warm words will not pay the bills or save livelihoods. The government must come forward with a new jobs protection and training deal that supports short-time working to stop the disaster of mass unemployment.”

Pandya also called the government to extend the existing measures to protect businesses from facing insolvency proceedings.

“A joined-up and medium term approach to supporting business and livelihoods is essential to avoid the health crisis also becoming a long-term economic crisis,” he said.

Isolated employees

Cheese said employers should recognise isolation and anxiety as risks for their workforce, as many might now be spending around a year working from home with little contact with their workplace.

“To counter this, they should ensure managers are regularly checking in with their teams, are asking about their wellbeing and signposting to support services where necessary.”

The news would have been frustrating for organisations that have taken costly steps to make their workplaces Covid-secure over the past few months, suggested Kate Palmer, associate director of HR advisory at Peninsula.

Warm words will not pay the bills or save livelihoods. The government must come forward with a new jobs protection and training deal that support short-time working to stop the disaster of mass unemployment,” – Frances O’Grady, TUC

“[These employers] should bear in mind that they will, presumably, have found ways to make this work during the initial lockdown months and should, hopefully, be better prepared this time,” she said.

Sridhar Iyengar, managing director for Europe at cloud platform Zoho, said organisations needed to have the right tools, leadership and culture in place to ensure they can continue to navigate the continued disruption.

“Employers and workers in all businesses will likely be facing some stress and confusion, as the government’s advice on home working shifts once again,” he said. “Employing some level of continuity and flexibility in business models is essential in enabling workplaces to seamlessly adapt to the ongoing situation.”

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