Bosses are telling staff to forget the pandemic and return to offices

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Ever since the email landed in her inbox, Jasmine* has felt a tight knot in her stomach. For the past week, the personal assistant could do little more than count down the days. On Monday morning, she will have left behind her healthy work-life balance and returned to the world of commuting, ergonomic chairs and water cooler moments – now socially distanced, of course. After seven months of working from home, office life awaits.
The overriding emotion is dread. Jasmine dubs it “the Sunday blues feeling”. But it’s not that she’s work-shy, nor that she envisaged that she’d never have to set foot in her company’s London headquarters again. It’s that amid a global recession, she won’t have anything to do. “There’ll be so much downtime: so much time sitting around, not doing anything and unable to leave until 6pm,” she explains. “Working from home, I’ve not eaten out of boredom and had more energy to exercise. I’ve felt healthier and more productive. There’s not one aspect of my job that can’t be done remotely.”

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Jasmine is one of thousands of workers up and down the country who have been told that they must return to the office, despite having worked productively from home throughout lockdown. As coronavirus cases surge, and the government advises us all to keep away from the workplace where possible, some bosses have stubbornly flung open the office doors and issued a clarion call for employees to return en masse. And with millions flooding the Covid job market, ready and willing to replace them, errant workers have little choice but to fall in line.
A company-wide end to remote working doesn’t necessarily need to be justified, either. There’s little preventing bosses from demanding their workforce back in the office on a whim, coronavirus be damned. “Our CEO thrives on office life – it’s very much a part of his personal life,” explains Jasmine. “He wants everyone back in for personal reasons. And to ensure everyone is working and not slacking off.”
Businesses aren’t necessarily relying on coercive methods to force workers back. Even when the workplace is ostensibly voluntary, employees fear retribution and excessive monitoring if they work from home. “Nothing has been explicitly said, but working remotely is so heavily scrutinised,” says Manchester-based sales executive Laura*. “We have key performance indicators like call times that we have to meet – it’s easy to see what someone is doing.”
Despite a local lockdown, Laura is one of many employees who have been left with little choice but to return to the office five days a week. “My big concern is future promotions and not slipping through the gaps. It’s old school, but being seen and recognised for slogging away is unfortunately the nature of my industry.”

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It was in July that Boris Johnson announced that the government’s work from home guidance was ending. That decision, however, was reversed last month following a spike in Covid cases. Of course, there will be many who prefer their working hours spent productively in the office rather than at home, navigating a slew of Zoom calls from their kitchen table all day. But even as local lockdowns were imposed and talk of second waves and circuit-breakers grew ever louder into October, figures showed that workplace attendance in London, Manchester, Edinburgh and Sheffield was actually on the rise.
Government advice notwithstanding, a company is perfectly entitled to request its workforce back in the office – so long as it’s safe to do so. “An employer can ask their staff to return to work after they’ve been on furlough or working from home,” explains Tom Neil, senior adviser for the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. However, every business has a legal responsibility and duty of care for its employees – even more so during a pandemic. Neil says this includes carrying out a risk assessment, and bringing in measures to ensure that the workplace is safe to return.
By working in the office, surrounded by colleagues, you’re going to be at greater risk of catching coronavirus. Workplaces should therefore be Covid-secure, with employees able to voice any concerns to their manager. However, when Ashley* told their boss they felt unsafe, little action was taken. “A board member told us that he thought Boris was just fear-mongering and that it was nothing to lose our heads over,” explains Ashley, who works in the head office of a large retail company in the south-east. “My boss parroted this back to me when I brought up my concerns – she said there was nothing she could do but make a note of it.”
With one-way systems ignored, meeting rooms packed and colleagues often within two metres of each other, Ashley has made the gut-wrenching decision to stay away from their elderly parents for as long as they’re in the workplace. “I don’t think it’s fair to be putting my work life before my personal life, especially when I could be doing the exact same work at home while still enjoying my family’s company. It’s upsetting, but I feel that it’s all too easy to spread the virus in an office environment.”

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According to Neil, if an employee is worried about catching coronavirus by going into work then they should talk to their manager as early as possible. “An employer should listen to any concerns an employee may have and seek to reassure them by highlighting measures already taken,” he explains. “They should also consider if any further action or adjustment is necessary in the situation.”
Mike Clancy, general secretary for trade union Prospect, argues that a combined approach to remote and office working would benefit businesses and employees in the long-term – so long as workplaces are kept safe. He cites inadequate accommodation and the increased use of monitoring technology as concerns for remote working. “Many people – particularly younger workers living in cramped conditions – want the opportunity for blended work or to get back into a safe office.”
At Jasmine’s workplace, four of her colleagues have asked if they can still work from home. But their pleas have fallen on deaf ears – their CEO has said that come Monday, he expects everyone to show their face in the office. To save rent, the business has downscaled to a single floor: 20 people will have to work on a tight, supposedly socially-distanced floorspace; communal areas such as the kitchen will see employees become contortionists, bending and stepping away from colleagues at improbable angles to maintain the two-metre rule. The only added safety measure put in place is extra hand sanitiser around the building.
As confirmed coronavirus cases shoot up and city after city goes into lockdown, taking the train into central London and spending all day in a confined office space is the last thing Jasmine wants to do. But she feels she can’t speak up – she can’t be an outlier. It’s turn up, or face having to enter an ever more precarious job market. “I need to look like a team player,” she says. “I’m very lucky to have kept my job with full pay during the pandemic, and I’m aware that I’m replaceable. I just have to accept my fate and get on with it.”
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