The Prime Minister suggested last week that everyone should get back to the office to support the economy. But what if that’s not possible? And should we just be seeking to get back to ‘normal’?
Boris Johnson’s suggestion that people return to the office last week once again shows that the Government, while understandably worried about the economy, really doesn’t understand what it is like on the ground for parents, who make up a considerable part of the workforce. Organisations have been explaining for months the issues around childcare. The timing of Johnson’s announcement – which seems to go against government policy to work from home if possible and Matt Hancock’s statement that people should legally be allowed to work permanently from home – shows that childcare just doesn’t seem to figure much in Government thinking despite its absolute centrality to many workers. Why is this? Is it because it is still seen as a woman thing and women are almost entirely absent from any of the major policy moves in this pandemic.
The summer holidays are a huge challenge for parents. Many summer holiday clubs are not opening, many nurseries are still closed, parents have used up annual leave and it doesn’t cover the whole of the summer holidays in any event, they can’t afford weeks of unpaid leave, grandparents may still be shielding or have underlying health issues which makes it impossible for them to care for children…These are just some of the many barriers parents face, yet the announcement came just days before the holidays begin. Similarly, many are coming back from furlough with no childcare available.
In theory, they can be kept on furlough because of a lack of childcare availability, but we know that many employers are refusing to do this and, if they do so, there appears to be nothing much employees can do. We know parents who have pleaded with their employers, in tears, to understand the problems they face and been told that if they don’t use unpaid leave they will face potential dismissal. And we all know that finding a new job will be very difficult as the number of unemployed increases.
The idea behind Johnson’s casual announcement appears to be to get people on transport and putting money into big city centre cafes and bars. The lack of footfall is an understandable concern, but so are those of workers worried about an inevitable second spike of cases. Employers we speak to say that the working from home experiment generally went much better than expected. They understand that many workers want remote working to become more embedded. That doesn’t necessarily mean everyone works from home for ever. For many, there are benefits in both working from home and working from the office and they want a greater balance of the two. For employers there are also potential financial advantages, for instance, savings on office estate and greater productivity [once childcare is back on stream].
They recognise that the current system doesn’t work for many people. Many employees will emerge from the last few months having had time to think about the mad, stressful rush that they previously endured. The world of work is changing. Coronavirus is not the only external uncertainty employers will face.
So, while an attempt to get everyone back to where we were before is understandable in the immediate economic crisis we face, it fails to acknowledge that things simply cannot remain the same and that the previous way of working did not fundamentally work for many.
The challenge is to reimagine work and every aspect of the economy to make it work better for most people. It shouldn’t mean a straight-out fight between office workers who can work from home and those in retail or transport or other industries who can’t. For instance, working nearer home could mean more investment in local high streets, in local transport systems, in local cafes. At the moment everything is centralised in mega cities where housing is at a premium. While it is hugely dynamic and exciting if you can afford to enjoy it, is it really the best model for the majority? The economy has to work for everyone and that means investment in the things that truly deliver on that.