Business Leader looks at what impact the Covid-19 vaccine will have on whether many of us return to the office.
The government’s plans to set out a structured delivery plan of the vaccine seems – at the time of writing – to be going OK but will it bring back some normality to the workplace or is homeworking and hybrid working here to stay?
Aside from the logistical issues that immunising an entire nation can bring, there are the social issues that can arise from a vaccination. Ever since the initial lockdown, there has been a vocal minority against restrictions and they have opposed the thought of being forced to take a vaccination. As government, companies and the public continue to debate this, what do business owners believe is the right way to go? Could mandatory vaccines be enforced to ensure an orderly return to the office?
Founder of Pimlico Plumbers, Charlie Mullins OBE has been vocal about his support the vaccination – coining the phrase ‘no jab, no job’. He comments: “Personally I think anyone who doesn’t have the vaccine is mad. I would also be a fan of businesses being allowed to make having a vaccine written into employment contracts. If for no other reason than from a health and safety point of view.
“I’m not sure however, if we want to be the kind of society where we force business owners to make staff have a vaccine. Again, speaking personally, I’m all for getting as close to 100% of staff vaccinated and would pay staff while they went to get the jab, and will be looking at making vaccinations available free of charge for staff, once they are freely available.”
In this unprecedented legal and employment issue, what can employers really do?
Laura Kearsley, Partner and solicitor specialising in employment at Nelsons, comments: “While an employer can’t compel employees to be vaccinated if they do not wish to be so, we’d advise our clients to encourage their employees to get vaccinated by ensuring staff have access to reliable information about the vaccine, so they’re able to make an informed choice, and even to allow paid time off for vaccination appointments.
“However, it may be within the business owner’s rights, depending on the circumstances, to take action if an employee is not going to be vaccinated and they think there are good reasons why they should be. For example, this would particularly apply to those working in healthcare or care home settings. In some circumstances, employees could in fact be dismissed for refusing the vaccination if it means they will present a threat to themselves, patients or service users.”
With the debate on the legal and ethical ramifications of a mandatory vaccination set to rumble on, what can an employer do if an employee refuses?
Lucy Gordon, Director in the Employment Team at law firm, Walker Morris, comments: “If an employee refused consent for a vaccination, the employer would need to decide whether it was reasonable, in the circumstances, to take disciplinary action. This would depend on the reasons given for the refusal and the employer’s justification for requiring vaccination in the first place.
“A further potential for discord would be employees refusing to work with non-vaccinated colleagues if they themselves are unable to be vaccinated. Employers would need to bear in mind the competing interests of employees and consider whether alternatives, such as changing either or both employees’ duties or work stations, could resolve any disputes.
“It is likely to be far safer and less contentious for employers to promote take up of vaccines rather than to enforce roll-out, just as the government will be doing. Employers should be mindful of different viewpoints and take positive action to encourage reliable, fact-based information being given to employees. Employers could consider inviting in healthcare specialists to answer employees’ questions to allay any concerns.”
WILL WE HEAD BACK TO THE OFFICE FULL-TIME?
Once the government allows business to resume to something resembling pre-COVID times, business leaders will need to decide how to proceed and what working model they will go forward with.
At Pimlico, staff members will be returning to the office. Mullins comments: “Everyone here will be returning to work. I can’t speak for the entire business community, but at Pimlico we have worked through two lockdowns and continue to have all hands on deck in the office, with the obvious exceptions for people who have medical reasons to shield.
“As far as what will happen elsewhere; I suspect that the return will be much bigger than many are making out. Working from home is overrated and once some colleagues come back people will start to crave the company and comradery. And if that doesn’t work, I think people will want to be seen to be working and doing a good job, and it’s hard to get noticed and promoted when you’re out of sight.”
However, Alistair Dornan, Director of Organisational Wellbeing at Gallagher, disagrees. He said: “It’s unlikely that we will see all employees returning to the workplace. Our ongoing research and analysis indicates the connection between work and an employer funded workplace has shifted permanently. This trend pre-dates COVID-19 – for many, work became something you did, and not somewhere you go, a long time before we reached the current situation.
“This trend has accelerated over the last 9-12 months and we are seeing the rise of the borderless workforce. Working outside of the traditional physical workspace, employees have remained productive, contributing positively to business objectives and with increased flexibility in terms of delivery, location, working hours, and delivery format.
“Whilst it’s realistic to expect the physical workplace to remain, it will continue to evolve and at an accelerated place, becoming a place that fosters creativity and connection, drives learning and opportunity. Helping people to feel different about work has a lot less to do with the physical fabric of your office and much more about the quality and meaning of the work being undertaken, the scale of the opportunity, and the breadth of how you package that within your purpose.”
ARE WE ALL ZOOMED OUT?
With no one-size-fits-all plan for the return to normal for businesses, many may choose to remain as they currently are, by improving on the current remote working plans that are in place. And that means the continuation of video conferencing and remote working.
Mullins comments: “I don’t see working from home as being particularly progressive. Businesses are called companies for a reason. They are about combined human endeavour, and you don’t get that from having 100 people at 100 kitchen tables and bedrooms.
“We had the technology to work from home before COVID-19, and for some, it was obviously attractive. For the rest of us, the majority, it was handy to be mobile on occasion, but never really caught on. It’s hard to see what has changed. It was good for some before COVID-19 and it’ll be mostly the same people working from home post-Covid.
“A Zoom call will never take the place of real human interaction. Just ask the people who are on Zoom calls 12 hours a day what they think of their work lives. I fell we’re all definitely ‘Zoomed out!’”
However, with the aforementioned complications still surrounding the implementation of a vaccine hanging over the UK – what does this mean for those that do return to the office in the longer-term.
Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula, said: “It may be a long time before social distancing rules are entirely gone so communications may have to continue via Zoom, or other platforms, especially for large meetings. When these COVID-secure restrictions are eventually gone though, video calling platforms may face a decline in interest, but demand will probably never die out. This is because Zoom and other similar platforms offer possibilities that employers will want to keep taking advantage of post-pandemic, such as conducting long-distance business.”
So, even though business leaders and employees may be feeling ‘zoomed out’, it is likely that tech platforms like it are here to stay but in the context of also embracing the traditional office environment.
Dornan concludes: “Tech platforms cater for a broad demographic and, while some may tell us they are ‘Zoomed out’, the reality is that we are hard-wired to evolve and adapt to change. The rapid pace of digitisation may have accelerated faster in the current pandemic environment, however, it is part of a broader transformation that has been underway for several decades.
Ultimately, irrespective of the waves of innovation and change, the fundamentals of work remain – physical presence, and the desire to interact in person.
“Enabling communication will always be a human need, a priority for almost any of our environments, and whether we are ‘Zoomed out’ is immaterial. We have to adapt to new ways of working, just as we did with mobile cell phones, email or the telegram.”