Contributors raised concerns around safety in the office, and the positive environmental impacts of not commuting when working from home were noted. On the other hand there were calls to return to the office due to the negative effects on mental health and lack of social interaction. Blended working models were suggested as an option. Contributors called for the continuation of the furlough scheme, and concern was expressed for specific sectors such as the aviation industry. Some contributors suggested the creation of new roles such as ‘COVID marshals’ for those newly unemployed.
Key themes discussed included:
- Arrangements for working at home or the workplace
- Business concerns and unemployment
Arrangements for working at home or the workplace
Commentary on work largely focussed on attitudes to working from home. A number of respondents who wanted this to continue, including arguing for a ‘right’ to be able to do so. Their reasons included convenience (with the perception that location had been shown to have no impact on productivity), more family time and safety while the virus is still circulating. Concerns were expressed that some employers were ‘encouraging’ people back to the office, despite there being little evidence this would improve productivity.
‘More defined guidelines and enforcement is needed. Current policies are too open to interpretation, leading to many employers to pick and choose how they [interpret] things to suit their preference.’
Some respondents were of the view that a greater incidence of working from home would lead to a reduction in environmental impacts, through reduced emissions, and help those based in rural communities, as location would be neutral. Some respondents said they could now move out of the city where they had worked prior to the pandemic and access more affordable housing.
Others were concerned about the safety aspects of working in the office, calling for face coverings to be mandatory. However others argued that it would be detrimental to mental health not to see other faces, and for communication reasons.
‘As a deaf person I pray you either do not introduce face masks in all workplaces or make working from home a permanent right for disabled people so that I am not stressed every day by working in an environment (non-essential business so not NHS) where every colleague is wearing one and I cannot understand what is being said.’
Some respondents were of the view that not enough employers took the actions necessary to comply with safety guidelines and that greater enforcement was required.
However, there were arguments against working from home and some calls for a return to the workplace. Reasons given included a need for social interaction and that increased working from home is isolating and negatively impacts mental health and the economy. Some respondents stated that their employer had been able to operate effectively and safely throughout the pandemic, and that generally people should be left to decide the risk of working in an office.
Some suggested that the workplace is important for creating a supportive working culture and that the face to face interaction helps build support networks and fosters positive relationships.
‘Much like going to a cafe and having a chat with a friend may be a release in isolation for some people, a work environment where you can freely communicate with one another can be for others. If employees are uncomfortable working from an office, of course that’s a consideration, and employers should rethink - but in actuality there are lots that want to get in and more involved. [Video conferencing] and other online communication tools do not adequately replace human connection.’
Some contributors suggested a mixed/blended weekly model of working from home and in the workplace:
‘A working pattern of 3 days wfh/2 days in office or something similar would still reduce dependence on public transport but allow city centre economies to recover and enable staff to interact face to face and rebuild the social support networks within the office.’
Business concerns and unemployment
There were responses which advocated for the continuation of the furlough scheme in the coming months. This was particularly the case for those that were previously in the “shielding” category who felt vulnerable as the virus was circulating at greater levels. It was also stated that a more targeted approach to lockdown would allow for resources to be better concentrated on those that did need to isolate, rather than large parts of the economy.
‘I have to go back to work at the start of November as furlough has ended. I have cystic fibrosis and have had a heart and lung transplant so am very high risk. I have two part time customer facing jobs. I was told 6 months ago to basically lock myself in the house and now, with cases just as high, I’m expected to go back to work. I think an extended furlough scheme should be organised for shielding people as we are still at very high risk.’
Some respondents stated that the furlough and self-employment support packages were not adequate, due to exclusions or reductions in income, and that improving this would be key to ensuring compliance with restrictions.
‘The replacement financial support package is not good enough. It will not stop redundancies and in some sectors they have not even opened to generate income. We cannot be expected to follow restrictions when people’s financial impacts are not being considered. The general public cannot control this therefore why should they be disadvantaged financially? The government need to support so no one loses out.’
As already alluded to in Chapter 4 in relation to changing behaviour, alternative employment was also called for, with suggestions that those newly unemployed could join a community testing service, or work as ‘COVID marshals’. A number of respondents expressed concern about the impact on younger people and some argued that a change to the retirement age would benefit this younger cohort, by releasing job capacity. Others argued that while much attention is given to the young workforce, older workers might need to be reskilled, as they already encounter difficulties in re-entering the labour market due to ill health or discrimination but might be ineligible for existing benefits due to household wealth.
‘(…) While the very young do need help so do other age groups affected by redundancy and unemployment. The over 50s group has the double issue of unemployment and blatant age discrimination for example. (…)’
A number of calls were submitted for a universal basic Income which could ensure ‘survivability’, although this was also combined with arguments for its long term impact on inclusion and poverty reduction.
There were concerns about the impact on specific sectors, such as aviation, but also the longer term unemployment that may follow. The impact on the economy and employment, and hence mental health and financial inclusion was a recurring theme across many ideas, not just those specifically dedicated to the workplace.