Workplaces

Businesses Cancel ‘Super-Spreader’ Christmas Office Parties

Catering services have reported that the demand for office Christmas parties has declined, as businesses want to avoid the risk of spreading Covid to staff. On the other hand, companies which have decided to host a traditional Christmas celebration have implemented safety measures to reduce the risk of contracting Covid, such as requiring attendees to show a negative PCR test. The Times has the story.

The Times approached every company in the FTSE 100 to ask whether they were organising an office Christmas party this year. Of those that responded there was an even split between cancelling and proceeding, although most of those that were going ahead said they would be hosting multiple smaller events rather than one big party.

Evraz, the mining group, said that it was cancelling festivities in order to “keep our people safe”. Anglo American, another mining group, and IAG, which owns British Airways, chose to cancel.

Experian, the credit reference agency, said that it was not having one big staff party but that employees would be offered “smaller group get-togethers” if they felt comfortable doing so.

Aviva, the insurance company, said that it was going ahead. A spokesman said: “we want everyone at Aviva to have the chance to celebrate the festive period with their colleagues. This will be a mix of events at our offices and at other locations. We are encouraging all colleagues to do everything they can to reduce the risk of the virus spreading, including taking a lateral flow test before and after the event and following external venues’ Covid measures.”

Hospitality businesses that rely on the Christmas season fear they will struggle this year. Philip Inzani, who owns the Polo Bar near Liverpool Street in the City of London, said that Christmas party bookings were down 30% on a normal year and that the bookings he had taken were for smaller groups on average.

“We’re finding that there are inquiries but for a lot less people. So where we would have had an inquiry for 30 people previously, we’re now finding that it’s 10 people or something like that”, he said. “One issue is that a lot of staff are flexi-working so fewer are in central London offices, and of course some people are still nervous about gatherings because of Covid”.

Inzani, 50, also offers catering for office-based Christmas parties but demand for that has slumped even further. He said: “We’d probably end up doing about 15 to 20 events throughout the pre-Christmas period normally. But so far this year we’ve just got two inquiries.”

Worth reading in full.

Businesses Left Confused by Government’s Mixed Messaging on Working From Home

Businesses and some Tory MPs have complained about the Government’s flip-flopping on its work from home guidelines, with Steve Baker warning that “an entire cohort of businesses which rely on office workers will be at risk if the Government doesn’t give a clear steer to employers”. The Telegraph has the story.

Back in March, the Prime Minister said Britain’s army of homeworkers have “had quite a few days off” and should soon make a “passing stab” at returning to offices. 

The Government’s work from home advice remained in place for four more months before Johnson shifted the responsibility to businesses, saying that the rest was for staff and employers “to work out for themselves”.  

The result of Johnson’s flip-flopping and mixed messaging has been that the prospect of a “big bang” as city centres returned to life has turned out to be more of a fizzle.

Tory MPs and many businesses that depend on the traffic of office workers are growing frustrated as central urban economies lag behind in the recovery.

“You struggle with getting any clear messages out of the Government really, and they all seem to be a bit distracted at the moment anyway,” says Brian Bickell, Chief Executive of West End landlord Shaftesbury. 

“There’s no reason not to come back to your office, public transport is perfectly safe… there’s no clarity of if you should go back, it’s just go back if you want to. I don’t know who they’re pandering to really.”

Experts expect more workers to return to offices from September, but whether it’s a trickle or a wave will be crucial for the future of many city centre businesses.

Johnson’s messaging has been stuck between making a full-throated endorsement for a return to offices and embracing the home working revolution. He is sitting out the big debate that will shape the future of Britain’s cities.

“Ministers need to decide whether they are willing to bear the consequences of mixed messages over whether to return to the office,” says Steve Baker, Deputy Chair of the Covid Recovery Group – an influential group of lockdown sceptic Tory MPs.

Worth reading in full.

Is This Hands-Free, Virus-Scanning Workplace the Future of the Office?

A good deal of companies are telling their staff to continue working from home, but even those workers who do return to the office could find that their surroundings are not quite as they once were. This, at least, is the hope of some Bucharest designers who have implemented almost 150 ‘Covid-free’ measures in a new office design, including hands-free door handles and thermal body cameras, which they hope to see being adopted by office planners around the world. The Guardian has the story.

Entering H3, a five-storey building in a western neighbourhood of the Romanian capital, is like learning the steps to a new dance. A flick of the wrist opens the door, and a red line marks the spot at which to stand from where a thermal body camera two metres away scans arrivals for signs of fever. Those who are ‘green-lighted’ can follow the tracks to the self-clean lift, step on one of two foot pads and be transported through the building, safe in the knowledge that a UV lighting disinfection system installed in the ventilation shafts is keeping them infection-free between floors.

Anyone whose head flashes red on the screen, however, is whisked away by a plastic-gloved ‘immune steward’ into a nearby quarantine room: a glass box with a panic button and its own internal ventilation system shut off from the rest of the building. A ‘Viruskiller’ apparatus on the wall, boasting three levels of fan strength, promises to remove anything nasty such as pollutants, mould or spores that may be infecting the air, with back up provided by a sanitising UV light on the wall.

This view of the future may alarm some. Modelled on hospital technology, is this sanitised environment a place to which employees will want to return once the pandemic is considered sufficiently under control? In Romania, just as elsewhere in Europe, the majority of office workers were confined to home for much of the past 18 months. Surveys show many are nervous about the prospect of coming back.

“The point is to reassure them. We don’t want people to panic,” says Gavin Bonner, one of the main coordinators behind the Immune building standard project, which has brought together health professionals, architects, engineers, IT and building managers from around the world to help corporations prepare for post-pandemic life.

The publicly available standard, trademarked Immune, has already been applied to several buildings in the U.K. Its developers include the leading Romanian property company Genesis, also the H3 landlord, and the project has cost about €1 million (£850,560). More than a dozen other buildings, from the U.S. to Singapore, are in the process of obtaining their Immune certification, according to Liviu Tudor, the CEO of Genesis. The H3 building, as the most protected space so far, acts as the showroom, incorporating all 135 of the recommended measures.

The project is open source “in an effort to pool the best ideas”, says Tudor, who has lodged an application with the E.U. in the hope it will form the basis for a new standard across the bloc, similar to conventional fire safety codes. It embraces everything from technological innovation and scientific knowledge to workplace psychology, he says, and he hopes it will embolden both employers and employees, millions of whom are now engaged in an intense conversation about whether it is safe to return to the office – and if so, how.

Worth reading in full.

Apple Staff Told They Won’t Return to the Office Unil 2022

Apple has scrapped its plans for corporate staff around the world to return to the office later this year, having decided not to welcome them back until January 2022 – at the earliest – instead. As seems to be the case with most recent news stories, this change comes because of fears over the Delta variant. The Guardian has the story.

The iPhone maker, which will still keep its network of retail stores open, had previously told staff there would be a phased return to work from October. The delayed office return applies to its international workforce, including those based in the U.K.

The company told staff in a memo that it would confirm the reopening plans one month before employees were required to return to the office, according to Bloomberg News.

The memo, sent by the Human Resources and Retail Head, Deirdre O’Brien, added that the company did not currently expect to close its offices or retail stores, but she strongly encouraged staff to get vaccinated. …

Apple, which last month reinstated the mask-wearing policy for in-store staff that it had only decided to scrap in June, had previously planned to ask staff to return to its offices on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays by early September, before delaying that to October. Employees would be able to work remotely on Wednesdays and Fridays.

In the U.K., the company employs 7,000 staff and operates 38 retail stores, the most in any country in Europe. …

Apple is the latest major corporation to decide conditions are not yet safe enough to expect staff to return to offices.

Earlier this month, Microsoft said it would push back the reopening of its corporate offices from September until at least October 4th.

Amazon staff will remain working remotely until at least January 3rd, while Google has extended its voluntary work from home period until October 18th, having previously outlined plans for a September return.

Worth reading in full.

More Than Four in Five U.K. City Workers Have Not Returned to the Office

Fewer than one in five people working in U.K. cities had returned to the office by the end of July, new figures show. The Government is said to be disappointed by this news, but it hasn’t exactly led by example on the matter, with, for example, the Department of Health and Social Care having scrapped its timetable requiring civil servants to be in offices for up to eight days a month from September. The Guardian has the story.

A report from the Centre for Cities thinktank said worker footfall in 30 big cities stood at an average of just 18% of pre-pandemic levels in the immediate aftermath of most Covid laws being scrapped in England.

The biggest migration of workers back to the office has occurred in Brighton, with 49% of people having returned to their desks, a rise of 6% on the previous week. This was followed by Gloucester (39%), Southend (38%) and York (37%).

Cities where only a fraction of workers have gone back to the office include Glasgow, with an 8% figure – the city has had Covid restrictions in force for longer, given Scotland’s slower easing than England – followed by London and Oxford (15%) and Sheffield and Milton Keynes (16%).

Daytime worker footfall fell by 1% in the final week of July compared with the previous seven days, and on average was running at barely half the pre-Covid levels.

Paul Swinney, Director of policy at Centre for Cities, said it showed there remained significant reluctance among some workers to head back to the office in the “largest and most economically important cities”.

He said that the “sandwich economy” that catered to city-centre office workers was facing “an uncertain future” as the end of the furlough scheme in September came closer. …

The Centre for Cities’ report also found a mixed picture for the recovery of nightlife across the country.

Blackpool had a 50% increase in night-time footfall as clubbers in the north of England and the Midlands demonstrated the greatest desire to take advantage of the lifting of lockdown rules.

The strongest recoveries in overall footfall after Blackpool were in Sunderland (37%) and Leicester, Middlesbrough and Wakefield (all 32%). Bars, restaurants and clubs in the big metropolitan centres in the north and Midlands – Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle – also saw hefty increases in activity.

By contrast, night-time footfall in London, Luton and Slough, remained unchanged since clubs reopened and social distancing rules were removed.

Overall, the thinktank found an average 16% increase in footfall in 63 towns and cities across the U.K. in the period after July 19th. Only Blackpool and Bournemouth had seen footfall return to pre-pandemic levels, and the Centre for Cities said each was getting a temporary boost from people in the U.K. having holidays at home.

Worth reading in full.

Mandatory Face Masks and Advice to Work From Home Should Be Reintroduced to Keep Figures “Under Control”, Say SAGE Scientists

Just how final was the July 19th “terminus date“? If Government advisers in SAGE have anything to do with it, then not at all. Some have argued that a number of restrictions, such as mandatory face masks and advice to work from home, should be brought back at the beginning of August if hospitalisation levels increase to keep the figures “under control”. And it’s hard to imagine the Government standing firm against this pressure, given that both a minister and the Chief Medical Officer have said Brits will “of course” face a new lockdown if the NHS comes under further pressure. The i has the story.

Scientific advisers have warned that Boris Johnson should be prepared to act in the first week of August to prevent the NHS becoming overwhelmed by the end of that month.

Modelling has suggested that the central case for U.K. daily hospitalisations at the peak of the third wave – expected at the end of August – could be between 1,000 and 2,000, with deaths predicted to be between 100 and 200 per day. …

Last week Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said hospitalisations were doubling roughly every three weeks. 

This would suggest close to 1,500 admissions by the end of the first week of August, well above the trajectory for the central case scenario for the third wave. It would point to 3,000 at the peak by the end of that month, which would match the peak of the first wave in April 2020.

Insiders stressed there is a lot of uncertainty in the modelling, and the picture will change all the time depending on vaccine take-up and people’s behaviour after July 19th.

But if admissions are outstripping the central estimates, SAGE scientists have advised that some non-pharmaceutical measures should be reintroduced, such as mandatory face masks and advice to work from home, in early August, halfway between the July 19th unlocking and the predicted peak at the end of August.

This early intervention, they argue, would prevent the NHS becoming swamped in a late summer crisis. …

Last week, when the Prime Minister gave the go-ahead for the fourth and final stage of the roadmap in England, he accepted that some restrictions may have to be reimposed if the situation worsened.

A source said what was needed was “less of an emergency brake and more of a gear change” in readiness to keep the third wave “under control”.

While mandatory face masks would be the “easiest” route to curb transmission, with minimal impact on the economy if it were kept to public transport and essential settings like supermarkets, this would have to be weighed against the “totemic” impact it would have on the public if they were ordered to cover up once again.

But others are arguing that the Government should be prepared to take tougher action.

Professor Dominic Harrison, Director of Public Health for Blackburn, said: “Any return to non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to control spread would have to focus on those that give the biggest suppression effect. 

“Essentially we might expect a reverse through the lockdown lifting steps with each ‘reverse step’ being introduced to match the scale of the surge in cases.”

Worth reading in full.

Working from Home during Lockdown Caused Loneliness and Mental Distress

An increasing number of businesses, tempted by the prospect of saving on hefty office costs, are telling their staff to work from home at least some of the time. The Government believes this should become the “default” position for employees post-lockdown, despite research showing that working from home can not only reduce productivity but can also increase – and has increased – levels of loneliness and mental distress – even for those who do not live alone. The Observer has more.

With ministers still debating how to manage the return to workplaces in the wake of Covid restrictions, a study by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) found that the biggest increases in mental distress and loneliness during the pandemic were felt by the most isolated group – those working from home and living alone. However, in a finding that surprised researchers, people working from home and living with others also experienced a significant increase in loneliness not felt by those working outside the home.

Analysts examined data from interviews carried out with 8,675 people before the pandemic and in May, July and November 2020. They found that people able to work from home have been protected from financial difficulties that can drive poor mental health. When financial circumstances, loneliness and demographic characteristics were controlled for in the research, however, people working from home recorded bigger increases in mental distress.

“More of us than ever now work from home and use technology to replace many aspects of work previously done in person, but this cannot fully replicate the working environment for everyone,” said Isabel Taylor, Research Director at NatCen. “As the Government considers current working guidance, individuals, employers and government departments should be aware of the impact working from home is likely having on people’s mental health.”

People were first advised to work from home by the Government in March last year. A month later almost half of U.K. workers were working from home at least some of the time. While limited numbers of people have returned to their workplaces since, advice to work from home has continued into 2021.

The advice could end on July 19th, though a debate about the measure remains. Experts from SAGE have warned in official papers that some measures are “likely to be needed beyond the end of the current roadmap process” to avoid “the likelihood of having to reverse parts of the road map”.

Government sources have denied reports that it was drawing up plans to give workers the right to work from home for ever if they wished to do so. However, they are planning a shift towards greater flexibility for workers in the future. Even before the pandemic hit, the 2019 Conservative election manifesto vowed to “encourage flexible working and consult on making it the default unless employers have good reasons not to”. …

The new NatCen paper states that there are other considerations that should be taken into account, including the interactions between colleagues and the clearer divide between work and personal lives that could be playing a part in its findings about mental health distress.

Worth reading in full.

Asda Moves Towards “Hybrid Working” for Office Staff

Asda has announced that its 4,000 head office staff will be allowed to work where they like in the near future, becoming the latest business giant to move away from office-based work amid suggestions that “hybrid working”, where staff work from home some of the time, could become the norm post-lockdown. BBC News has the story.

The supermarket group said staff at Asda House in Leeds and George House in Leicester can choose where they work.

Around 4,000 staff work at both offices, with the majority based in Leeds.

England is set to lift final Covid measures on July 19th and many businesses have indicated they will continue to allow flexible working.

However, not all companies plan to embrace a hybrid approach. Goldman Sachs International has said it wants people to come back into the office once restrictions have ended.

Asda said its new approach “will encourage colleagues to select the best location to do their job”, including home, head office or even a store or depot.

However, the company said the model would not work for all employees, such as those who need to have close contact with colleagues, like, for example, people who work in training.

But it said staff also “have the flexibility to work from home when it is more productive to do so, such as tasks that involve planning or research”. 

Asda’s plan is similar to one adopted by Nationwide, which will allow the building society’s 13,000 office employees to “work anywhere”. 

Nationwide is closing three offices in Swindon and the 3,000 staff based at those sites can either move to the nearby headquarters, work from home or mix the two. Some employees may be able to work from a local High Street branch if they prefer, instead of travelling to an office.

The “hybrid working” approach is likely favoured because of its cost-cutting benefits. However, some are concerned that working from home reduces levels of productivity.

The BBC News report is worth reading in full.

Government Considering Making Working from Home “Default” Option

Workspace provider IWG (formerly Regus) said in March that, after lockdown, “hybrid working”, where staff work from home some of the time, will become “the norm”. With the Government confirming on Thursday that it is considering making working from home (WFH) the “default” position by giving employees the right to request it, we are a step closer to this. The Guardian has the story.

Responding to reports that ministers could change the law, Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson said a flexible working taskforce was examining how best to proceed.

“What we’re consulting on is making flexible working a default option unless there are good reasons not to,” they said. That would mirror the approach to other forms of flexible working, such as part-time hours.

However, they emphasised there would be no legal right to work from home, adding that the Prime Minister still believed there were benefits to being in the office, including collaboration with colleagues.

Business lobby groups have said many of their members are considering keeping flexible and hybrid approaches adopted during the pandemic. Sixty-three per cent of members of the Institute of Directors said they intended to shift to working from home for office-based workers for between one and four days a week.

However, the Confederation of British Industry, another lobby group, said it opposed giving workers an automatic right to work from home. “The default must remain that businesses control where work is done. While they will need to talk with workers about this, accommodate flexibility where they can and explain these decisions, it can’t be unduly onerous to do so,” said Matthew Percival, the CBI’s Director of People and Skills. “That’s why a ‘right to request’ approach is the right one.”

The pandemic [that is, lockdown] has ushered in drastically different working arrangements for many office workers, but the plan to legislate to support working from home had already been mooted in the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto…

Ministers have been advised that removal of all restrictions on workplaces could be risky, according to a document first reported by Politico. Instead, the Government is thought to be considering advice for a hybrid approach, blending continued home working with some time in the office when necessary.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Downing Street has denied the story, saying there are “no plans” to make working from home the default after the pandemic or to legislate for a legal right to work from home. But many things the Government has said it has “no plans” for have subsequently turned out to be very much in the pipeline, so we shall see.

More Companies Tell Their Staff to Work From Home Post-Lockdown

An increasing number of companies are telling their staff to work from home at least some of the time, confirming previous reports that, for many, “hybrid working” could become “the norm” post lockdown. HSBC moved 1,200 staff in Britain to permanent working from home contracts last month – many of them willingly – in an effort to cut costs, despite a study finding that working from home is less productive (not to mention the impact on staff socialisation). The latest companies to take this approach are Google and KPMG. The Guardian has the story.

Accounting and consultancy group KPMG has told its 16,000 U.K. staff that they will have to work only an average of two days in the office each week from next month, as the firm revealed its plans for a post-pandemic hybrid working model.

Under the new initiative, which the company has called the “four-day fortnight”, staff will spend the remaining days working either from home or at client sites.

In addition, over the summer, staff will also be given an extra 2.5 hours off each week “to give people time away from work and to re-energise”. 

All staff will be given an extra day off on June 21st, the date the Government plans to end all social distancing restrictions – which many see as marking the end of the pandemic.

The new KPMG working arrangements were unveiled as Google said it expected 20% of its staff to work from home permanently in the future. The search engine group said it anticipated 60% of workers being office-based, 20% working in new office locations and 20% staying at home.

Those proposals are in stark contrast to the approach taken by investment bank Goldman Sachs. On Tuesday, Goldman moved in the opposite direction, telling its U.S. and U.K. bankers to prepare to return to offices next month.

Jon Holt, Chief Executive at KPMG UK, said: “We trust our people. Our new way of working will empower them and enable them to design their own working week. The pandemic has proven it’s not about where you work, but how you work.”

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Almost all of the U.K.’s 50 biggest employers say that they do not plan to bring staff back to the office full-time, according to BBC News.