As the world begins to navigate peak cases of Covid-19, governments are beginning to loosen the tight regulations on offices and workplaces and encourage employees to travel back to work. Is this for better or for worse? Let’s examine the positions of the government, business and the individual to assess whether all parties are on the same page regarding this tricky decision that balances health, productivity, economics and lifestyle.
The dilemma for the government
The UK government has publicly expressed hope that employees will return to offices. The conspicuous absence of employees has been sorely missed by the service sector which had grown to cater to the hordes of workers who would appear at work each morning.
Think of the lunchtime sandwich bars, cleaning companies, train firms and the restaurants in the area which used to host post-work meals and drinks. These neglected sectors of the UK economy have been trying to nurse themselves back to health, but without pre-pandemic levels of workers at workplaces (particularly in the cities), they have little chance of recovering.
However, the government also recognises that a return to the commutes of old will have some negative side effects.
Firstly, the Bank of England has shared alarming statistics regarding consumer price inflation in recent months. These are more than just numbers on a spreadsheet, they tell the story of soaring prices of food, energy and other essential items. This inflation pandemic is reducing the spending power of UK worker wages.
At the moment, many would-be commuters are saving over a hundred pounds a month by not buying flexible train tickets, and staying at home for most days of the week. If employees were compelled to return to old habits, their disposable income will fall further.
This lack of disposable income could lead to lower consumer confidence and a dramatic down tick in the large purchases (such as cars, white goods, holidays) that drive the economy.
The dilemma for business
Businesses need to walk a fine line as they examine the pros and cons of bringing their employees back to office life.
- Employees who interact with each other in person develop closer social bonds, which reduces employee churn and retains important know-how in the team.
- Employees who are present are generally easier to monitor, meaning that some entrepreneurs believe that they can effectively get the best performance from employees who are working in the same room as them.
- When holding international meetings, for example a board meeting; hosting an in-person meeting ensures that the chair has the captive attention of all participants and that the meeting is given an important status. This is often worth the business travel expense on a couple of cheap train tickets.
- Employee expectations have now shifted, and most UK office workers now expect to follow a hybrid working model for the foreseeable future. Any employer who rejects this notion and demands that staff come in for 5 days per week will clash with the fundamental expectations of their workforce.
- Workers who feel they have proven that they can deliver effectively from home may resent the additional cost and lost time of commuting, only to perform the same work in an office. This could lead to the employees looking elsewhere, and becoming part of the wave of resignations seen in recent months.
This presents businesses with a real dilemma that no business book really addresses. Would the closer social bonds formed from in-office relationships compensate for the increased dissatisfaction of not providing the flexible working arrangements that employees have come to expect? Only time will tell.
Of course, airline businesses have their own interests at heart. Long-haul carriers are known to subsidise the cost of ordinary passenger fares using the profits from high-margin business class seats. Without business class, each passenger needs to stump up more for their flight to keep the route profitable, which will reduce demand for flights overall as passengers opt for cheaper domestic alternatives.