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The Government has announced new guidance for the months ahead, including putting more onus on employers to decide whether or not employees should continue to work from home.
The Government will give employers more discretion on how they ensure employees can work safely from 1 August, if prevalence of the coronavirus remains around or below current levels.
That means a slight relaxation in the guidance around working from home. The guidance now says that working from home is one way for employees to work safely, but that workplaces can also be made safe by following COVID-19 Secure guidelines.
Announcing the changes, including guidance on local lockdowns and increases in testing, Boris Johnson said: “Instead of government telling people to work from home, we are going to give employers more discretion, and ask them to make decisions about how their staff can work safely…Whatever employers decide, they should consult closely with their employees, and only ask people to return to their place of work if it is safe. As we reopen our society and economy, it’s right that we give employers more discretion while continuing to ensure employees are kept safe.”
From August, it also plans to reopen most remaining leisure settings, restart of indoor performances to a live audience, subject to the success of pilots, enable all close contact services to resume, including any treatments on the face such as eyebrow threading or make-up application and carry out pilots in venues with a range of sizes of crowds, particularly where congregating from different places, including sports stadia and business events.
Alan Price, employment law expert and CEO of BrightHR, said: “Employers may have been looking for more guidance and direction from the Prime Minister’s statement this morning…What is clear is that the government are certainly operating with winter in mind and is focussed on increased localised lockdown measures as a key component of working against a second wave. While companies have likely already considered the implications of a localised lockdown, this statement makes it all the more critical that they are ready to implement measures as instructed should their area, or business, face an increased rate of infection.
“One of the significant areas employers were likely eager to hear more news on was the guidance on staff working from home. Ultimately, the Prime Minister’s comments do not seem to represent a substantial shift in current guidance. However, they do seem to confirm that working from home does remain up to employers to implement. Therefore, while employees can continue to work from home, it is up to their employer if they should be permitted to do so, as long as this employer can safely ask staff to return to work. One thing it seems we can take from this is that, at least for now, the government are not planning to enshrine any automatic right to work from home in law.”
The TUC’s Frances O’Grady accused the Government of “passing the buck” on the safe return to work. She said getting back to work safely requires a functioning NHS Test and Trace system, greater investment in public transport, employer risk assessments, consultation with staff trade unions and employers continuing to show flexibility and consideration for workers’ individual circumstances.
The UK government’s Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance told the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee yesterday that it was still too early for a widespread return to the office. “We’re still at a time when distancing measures are important,” he told MPs. “Of the various distancing measures, working from home for many companies remains a perfectly good option because it’s easy to do. I think a number of companies think it’s actually not detrimental to productivity. And in that situation, there’s absolutely no reason I can see to change it.”
Meanwhile, research suggests that fewer than one in six workers has returned to the office. According to reports from the City, only 800 of Goldman Sachs’ 6,000 London staff have returned, while fewer than 2,000 of the 12,000 at JP Morgan are back. EY, which employs 17,000 people in the UK, will re-open its offices from September 7th, but capacity will be “significantly reduced” and employees will return on a voluntary basis with a desk booking system. PwC is set to increase its office presence from 15% to more than 50% by September. RBS, which has about 50,000 of its 65,000 staff working from home, will see the vast majority of its staff continue to work remotely until at least September, with Lloyds Bank planning to keep roughly 50,000 of its 63,000 workers at home until September at the earliest.
A report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research shows that a third of office workers want to continue to work from home. The research suggests that between 25% and 30% of employees will be working from home on any one day in 2021 after finding strong demand for more flexible jobs, up from a tenth in 2019.