Should we be working from home again?

Since the first lockdown ended, there has been continued debate over whether home or hybrid working, or a return to the office is the best way forward, both from a business sense and for containing Covid-19. So, with the emergence of the Omicron variant this winter, Business Leader decided to investigate whether we should be working from home again.

Perhaps the most pressing reason why we should be working from home again is, of course, the Omicron variant. Whilst scientists are still determining the full magnitude of this variant of coronavirus, the early evidence suggests that it has an advantage in bypassing our body’s anti-virus defences.

The director of the Genetics Institute at University College London, Professor Francois Balloux, was quoted by the Guardian saying: “From what we have learned so far, we can be fairly confident that – compared with other variants – Omicron tends to be better able to reinfect people who have been previously infected and received some protection against Covid-19.

“That is pretty clear and was anticipated from the mutational changes we have pinpointed in its protein structure. These make it more difficult for antibodies to neutralise the virus.”

In England, the number of confirmed Omicron cases now stands at 104, but the variant has spread rapidly in South Africa: there were 8,561 recorded cases in South Africa on the 1st of December, compared with 3,402 on the 26th of November, whilst there only a few hundred cases in mid-November. Therefore, the risk of Omicron spreading rapidly appears a very real possibility.

With the emergence of the Omicron variant, we were interested to learn if an employer’s duty of care for their staff would be affected. So, we spoke to Rebecca Thornley-Gibson, Partner at law firm DMH Stallard, who gave us a legal perspective on the issue.

She said: “COVID-19 has put the spotlight on the employer’s duty to provide a safe workplace for its employees, ensuring – with the caveat ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’ – the health, safety and welfare of its employees at work.

“Employers should carry out a risk assessment to ensure that appropriate measures are in place to minimise the risks of COVID-19 and the regularly updated government guidance (Working Safely During COVID-19) sets out priority actions and measures that an employer should take to manage risk.

“The guidance advises employers to take actions including providing adequate ventilation, cleaning more frequently and turning individuals away (both staff and customers) who have COVID-19 symptoms.

“Communication with employees on the health and safety measures that have been out in place will help to provide a degree of reassurance to employees that their working environment is as safe as it can be.

“Employers are in a perpetual state of uncertainty due to changing government guidance, emergence of new variant threats, such as Omicron, and a growing confidence from employees to speak up and tell employers what they do and don’t want to do in light of Covid-19 risks.

“If a Covid-19 risk assessment has already been carried out and communicated, there shouldn’t be a need for employers to revisit their assessments unless government guidance changes. However, some employers are now receiving an increased level of enquiries from employees about if and when they should come into the office, due to what appears to be an increased transmission risk of Omicron.

“HR need to be ready to deal with these enquiries and keep employees informed of any changes to health and safety measures.”

Will working from home reduce the spread of the Omicron variant?

Even if all workplaces are strictly adhering to workplace protocols to reduce the spread of coronavirus, you’d struggle to find someone who would argue against the idea that staying at home is less likely to spread the variant than coming into work.

According to the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), it greatly limits face-to-face contact, both with colleagues and on public transport, meaning it is very effective against virus transmission and the R number, which represents a disease’s ability to spread.

But despite this, Dr. Joel Lockwood, Regional Chief Medical Officer – UK and Americas, World Travel Protection is unsure whether businesses should start sending people home before the government intervenes.

He comments: “The desired outcome of having people work remotely is to have less face-to-face contact, to reduce Covid-19 transmission. If, or when this is the correct decision depends on many local factors, including disease prevalence, local hospital capacity, and other public health interventions and their effect.

“It can be easy to come to an abrupt decision to ‘send everyone home’, which may very well be an appropriate decision in some instances, but sometimes in doing so, managers aren’t considering other options.

“In an ideal world, business should be following the Government’s public health advice regarding working safely from the office setting, but unfortunately, the quality of policy and intervention by various governments has been quite inconsistent across the world which, predictably, has led many business leaders to take things into their own hands.”

Dr. Lockwood also believes there are several strategies companies can employ to allow staff to safely work from the office.

He continues: “While having staff working from home will reduce face-to-face contact in the office, there are often many other strategies that can be employed to safely have staff in the office.

“These include mandatory symptom screens upon entry, social distancing policies, a mandatory masking policy in any public setting where social distancing isn’t possible, encouraging hand hygiene and enhanced cleaning policies, encouraging or enforcing Covid-19 vaccination, reduced capacity, and encouraging safe methods of transport to and from work, including cycling and walking.”

Of course, many companies will already have these types of policies in place, but there is no way of knowing how strictly they are being adhered to. If they are not strictly adhered to, what happens when someone tests positive for, or has symptoms of, Covid-19 in the workplace?

At the moment, the government advises employers that if their workers display any symptoms of Covid-19, they should self-isolate and complete a PCR test. However, there are studies suggesting that as many as 35% of people who are infected with Covid-19 are asymptomatic. So, just by coming into the office, there is a risk of inadvertently coming into contact with the virus.

And what actually happens when there is a positive test? Current government advice says that anyone can be a close contact anytime from two days before the person who tested positive developed their symptoms, or before the date of their test if they did not have symptoms, and up to 10 days after.

Anyone who has had any of the following types of contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 can also be classed as a close contact:

  • face-to-face contact including being coughed on or having a face-to-face conversation within one metre
  • been within one metre for one minute or longer without face-to-face contact
  • been within two metres of someone for more than 15 minutes (either as a one-off contact, or added up together over one day)

So, taking these categorisations of a close contact into account, how many people in work environments, especially tight-knit ones such as offices, would be classed as close contacts? Most likely a high percentage, unless they are meticulously adhering to their workplace’s Covid-19 protocols.

Anyone who is notified by the NHS Test and Trace app as a close contact should also self-isolate unless they are exempt. So, anytime there is a positive test in a workplace, there is a good chance of this having a knock-on effect on other members of staff.

In addition to staff worrying about having the virus and passing it onto people they’ve been in close contact with, this knock-on effect might take the form of sending other staff home, meaning a loss in work hours from the resulting travel to and from the workplace.

If every close contact decides to get a PCR test too, this also means more time taken to travel to the testing site, with more subsequent strain being put on Covid-19 testing services.

This can all be avoided by keeping staff who are able to work from home away from the office.

However, as Rebecca Thornley-Gibson points out, the current government guidance does mean every employee must work from home.

She continues: “In England, the guidance on working from home needs to be carefully considered by employers to enable them to evidence that they are discharging their duty of care to employees.

“Where there is advisory government guidance to work from home, it does not mean that every employee must work from home. There will be roles that cannot be easily carried out from home and in those circumstances, employers can still require employee attendance, subject to having put in place health and safety measures.

“However, it will be a brave employer who does not follow government work from home advise where there is no justification for the role being carried out in the office location.”

What would be the effect of forcing people to work from home again?

Although working from home will help to contain the virus, big questions remain over whether it is a viable option for everyone.

However, Andrew Mawson, Founding Director of global consultancy Advanced Workplace Associates, points out that many of us are already working remotely, so will be used to it by now.

He comments: “Whether or not organisations are advised to work remotely again due to the Omicron variant, it’s crucial to acknowledge we are in a completely different place to where we were last year, and even earlier this year. There is no comparison between being told to work remotely in March 2020 and being told to do so now.

“Based on our research and the conversations we are having with clients, most organisations have already embraced a hybrid way of working, where employees split their time between working remotely and being physically in the office, and they are utilising that model rather effectively and productively.

“So, as they are working remotely anyway, and in today’s tech and virtually-led workplace, I’m more than confident that employees can adapt, and it will be ‘business as usual’ if the government reintroduces a remote working directive.”

Angela Love, Director at Active Workplace Solutions, concurs that many of us have adapted, but we cannot have another lockdown.

She says: “We have to accept that Covid-19 is part of our personal and professional lives now. Much of the workforce has already adapted well on more than one occasion, proving that it can work effectively from just about anywhere.

“However, the conversation will again turn to what the role of the office is with less and less people coming in five days a week. We certainly cannot have another lockdown. There’s too much at stake when it comes to mental health and wellbeing, and it may also be the last straw for some businesses, particularly those operating in the hospitality sector, which has already seen numerous Christmas parties cancelled across the UK.

“We must be cautious, sensible, and find the strength to live with the virus.”

However, Rebecca Thornley-Gibson says we need to be careful as some employees may not want to work from home.

She comments: “Employers should be careful of taking a blanket approach for all in its work from home policies. Some employees may not want to work from home as they don’t have suitable workspaces and have experienced poor mental health from being isolated from colleagues.

“Conversely, some employees may be experiencing heightened stress of having to work in the office, due to their concerns about contracting Omicron and where those concerns arise due to particular vulnerabilities, e.g. poor health and pregnancy. So, employers should be sensitive to their individual circumstances.”

Charles Butterworth, Managing Director of Access People, concurs that remote working can negatively impact mental health and wellbeing.

He says: “‘’At the beginning of the pandemic, this rise of remote working introduced a world of possibilities for many, but also limitations related to mental health and wellbeing. There was a clear impact on mental health following lockdown measures, and this affected workers in significant ways.

“It became easier for the divisions between home and work to blur, and nearly impossible for managers to have sight over the wellbeing of their workforce without the necessary technology in place to support such a whirlwind of a change.

‘’Remote working has increased in popularity not only because of the pandemic, but because people have figured out that achieving a greater work-life balance is firmly in reach when we have more control over their working schedule.

“According to a recent Access People poll, half of workers prefer a hybrid working arrangement, working some days from home and some days from the office. A significant 41% prefer to work entirely from home. This strong shift in mindset indicates that new ways of working are likely here to stay.

‘’If we were to return to a mandated work from home environment as a result of new COVID variants, there are important factors to consider related to the wellbeing of our workforce. For those accustomed to commuting to the office every day and socialising with colleagues, the pandemic was a lonely experience.

“It’s important not to repeat the same mistakes as before, and ensure that employees have the right tools in place to work from home while still feeling connected to their colleagues and enabled to get their work done efficiently and productively.

‘’We have the power to support people’s wellbeing while also doing our jobs effectively during this challenging moment in history. The priority is finding the right balance between work and life, and helping our workforce navigate this change successfully amid the uncertainty.’’

What about rising energy costs?

With energy costs on the rise, it’s also important to consider the difference in costs between people working from home and going into the office.

According to new research by Electric Radiators Direct, the October 2021 energy price cap increase has caused the cost of working from home to reach £90.64 per month, or £1,088 per year. In comparison, the average Brit spends just £64 a month commuting, so remote working could cost almost £27 extra each month.

As a result of the price rises, their research found that 49% of UK employees (that have worked remotely in some capacity since the pandemic hit) say the energy price hike is ‘highly’ impacting their choice of working location.

When commenting on the findings, Stephen Hankinson, Managing Director at Electric Radiators, said: “As the days get colder and more of us turn to putting the heating on while we work from home, our research has shown that concerns over rising energy costs have many people considering a return to the office this winter.

“With Covid-19 cases still high across the country, choosing whether to work from home or return to the office won’t be an easy decision. Our data has shown that the energy price hike will push the majority of the nation to be more mindful of their consumption overall, while some will look to invest in smart heating solutions.”

Since hybrid and home working were introduced, there has also been a debate over which option is best for productivity. In an exclusive interview with Business Leader, the Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort, also described working from home as a “death sentence for a salesforce”. So, the decision to send everyone home to work is far from cut-and-dry.