Britain has stumbled through a highly political pandemic.
Virtually every move Boris Johnson’s government has made in response to the Covid-19 crisis has sharply divided the weary nation — starting with his refusal to sack a roaming chief aide in May, and encompassing since his struggles on testing, contact tracing, technology, schools and lockdown restrictions.
But as the country enters a new stage in its coronavirus response and cases tick upwards at an alarming rate, the political back-and-forth is entering a new arena: the lounges, bedrooms and studies of millions of British workers.
Nearly half of the United Kingdom’s 30 million employees have worked from home during the pandemic, according to the country’s statistics body, with an additional 9 million placed on the country’s furlough scheme.
They were sent there by the government, who ordered workplaces to shut as the virus started spreading.
But now, despite rising cases and a growing public desire for flexible work arrangements, the government desperately wants employees back in offices.
Ministers and business leaders cite the economic impact on city centers as the driving force behind their push — but their rhetoric is irking many employees, who feel it suggests they’re not working hard enough from home.
“The economy needs to have people back at work,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the BBC this week.
“People are going back to the office in huge numbers across our country, and quite right too,” Johnson added to his Cabinet on September 1, without providing evidence for the assertion.
The tone is even sharper in much of the British media. “Ghost town Britain HAS to get back to work and Boris Johnson must lead the way,” read the headline of a newspaper column by Carolyn Fairbairn, head of the Confederation of British Industry.
“They’re back at work … where’s rest of UK?” was the front page headline of the same paper the day schools reopened earlier in September. The Telegraph ran a jarring quote attributed to an unnamed minister days earlier, telling people: “‘Go back to work or risk losing your job’.”
Shelly Asquith, the Health, Safety & Wellbeing Policy Officer at the TUC, the congress of UK labor unions, describes the national discussion of returning to work as a blame game.
“There’s been a concerted effort from some sections of the media to make out that a lot of people who are working from home aren’t really working,” she told CNN Business. “And there’s a lack of understanding of how hard people have been working in lockdown.”
“Some of the rhetoric that has been employed in recent times … is atrocious,” added Phil Taylor, who is conducting research into experiences of homeworking for the Institute of Employment Rights, saying it “detracts attention away from the gross negligence of the government over many months.”
“There’s lives at stake here,” Taylor told CNN Business. “If people don’t wish to go back to the office, they shouldn’t be blamed for it all.”
‘It’s incredibly irresponsible’
Despite weeks of effort from government ministers, the complexities of Britain’s return to the office could best be summed up by the response to a commercial for a cleaning detergent last week.
A widely-panned advert for cleaning agent Dettol on London’s underground network went viral for its wayward list of all the “little things we love” about the office — like “carrying a handbag,” “taking a lift” and “accidentally replying-all.”
“Thank you, Dettol, for convincing me to work from home forever,” responded historian Alex von Tunzelmann, encapsulating the thoughts of many online commentators.
“If anything it just served as a reminder to everybody of why they do want to keep working from home,” added Asquith.
Dettol’s parent company Reckitt Benckiser (RBGLY) declined to comment to CNN Business on its own remote-working policies.
The push to return to workplaces comes as Johnson announces new restrictions on social gatherings in response to a rise in Covid-19 cases, sharpening concerns over office safety.
“Wherever workers are in relatively close proximity to each other, the likelihood is these infections will take place,” Taylor said, citing multiple cases of call centers across the country reopening, only to shut amid a spike in infections.
Taylor’s research makes “absolutely clear that people were identifying serious problems with the working environment,” he said. “The occupational density of existing office spaces is such that it is almost impossible to maintain effective social distancing.”
Concerns over the economy lie at the heart of the conundrum — while homeworking has boosted local, residential high streets, city centers remain virtually deserted compared to last year, Mike Cherry, the national chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, told CNN Business. High street food and coffee chains have been particularly badly hit by the pandemic, after footfall on busy streets dropped immediately and subsequently failed to return to pre-lockdown levels.
The UK economy recorded its third consecutive month of growth in July, but it has still only recovered just over half of the output lost because of the coronavirus.
A paradigm shift in the way Brits work
The pandemic has also unleashed a new era of homeworking that many employees simply don’t want to give up – and that is shaping up to be a major problem for the government.
Around a third of British employees under 60 are already planning to work from home more when things return to normal, according to a study by London’s UCL, while Cardiff University research found that a full nine in 10 workers who have logged on from home during the pandemic want to continue to do so.
“One of the things that’s happened as a result of this lockdown is that people have found they have places where they can work easily and with less distractions — and there are advantages to working from home,” said Paul Bernal, whose tweet criticizing a Daily Mail front page on the issue went viral last week.
“More people have recognized that than I expected, and than the government expected,” he told CNN Business.
Bernal is now one of countless workers at odds with the government’s messaging, and hoping for more flexible arrangements in the future.
He contested any suggestion that productivity is affected. “I’ve produced a hell of a lot while I’ve been locked down — probably more than before,” he said.
“It feels very hypocritical of the government and media that they want people to take risks for other people’s benefits, not for their own,” he added. “The suggestion that somehow we’re being selfish by choosing to work from home, and that we should be sacrificing ourselves to the greater good — but what is the greater good here?
“Getting a good work-life balance is actually the greater good.”
That sentiment is certain to provide trouble for officials as they seek to usher people back into cities and towns on a daily basis.
They’re not alone; the pandemic has sent about 42% of American workers home, according to Stanford University research. But the response to homeworking in other European countries has taken a notably different tone than in the United Kingdom.
In April, Germany’s finance minister told Bild he wanted to pass a law giving employees the right to work from home at any time, Reuters reported. In France, the government is still advising people that “working from home must be preferred whenever possible.” And a bill being prepared in Spain would give employees the “right to a flexible schedule” and force employers to cover costs of working from home, according to local reports.
Those new ways of thinking about work have hardly been discussed in Britain — but for many labor unions and workers, it’s time they were.
And as tensions between the two camps build, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that spending five days a week in the office will ever be the norm in the United Kingdom again. “It’s time for a paradigm shift in the way that people work,” said Taylor at the Institute of Employment Rights.