1. Money

    Matthew Lynn

    Rishi Sunak’s warm words won’t persuade workers back to offices

    Rishi Sunak's warm words won't persuade workers back to offices
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    It will be better for our careers. We will network more effectively, spark ideas off one another, and learn new things from our colleagues, as well as getting a reminder from time to time of how annoying they are. 

    Chancellor Rishi Sunak took a break today from his usual occupation of dishing out vast sums of free money to remind us all of how much he learned from working in an office. Sunak is urging us all to get back to the skyscraper, shop, warehouse, or whatever, as quickly as possible. But hold on. Sure, there is nothing wrong with a few warm words to that effect – but we need more than that to get us back to the office. 

    As lockdown finally eases, and the country starts the painful process of getting back to normal, many workers seem reluctant to stop hanging out in their PJ’s on Zoom all day. 

    There isn’t exactly a rush back to our old places of work. A lot of staff are demanding the right to hybrid working; others are seeing soaring absentee rates. And even in the public sector – rarely noted for its workaholic culture – many staff are continuing to work from home. 

    Of course, to some degree this is understandable. Many workers prefer being at home; some may even be more productive (although that is likely to be an overrated assessment of their productivity). Others are worried about returning while infections are still high. And employers and landlords are unsure how to enforce social distancing. There are also concerns about insurance liabilities, if staff do get sick on their premises.

    So to persuade people back to their desks, those things need to be addressed. But how? Here are three places we could start. 

    First, what about one of Sunak’s famous offers? If we had an ‘eat out to help out’ programme last summer to get us back to restaurants again, how about a deal on commuting for a month? And just to make it more appealing, half-priced coffees on Monday morning? It would hardly cost the Treasury a fortune, at least compared to the benefits of getting everyone back. 

    Next, we need some legal changes. Employers should be made exempt from Covid health claims from staff. They should also have the right to dismiss people who won’t be vaccinated. 

    At the moment, no one running an office knows what their legal obligations are, and many have learned the hard way to live in fear of ambulance-chasing employment lawyers. Legal clarity, with a one-page act passed through Parliament if necessary, would clear that up. 

    Finally, how about a downsizing grant to help firms shift to a smaller office if they are opting for a hybrid model? In truth, lectures and speeches from senior ministers are fine. But if we want to get everyone back to the office or factory as quickly as possible we need some concrete measures as well – and right now there is not much sign of them.