Business leaders and the Labour party on Friday called on the government to come up with a clear and consistent message on where people should work after conflicting signals from ministers.
The government will next week launch a media campaign to encourage more employees back to their workplaces amid growing concern in Downing Street over the rising number of job losses at service businesses in city centres that are reeling from a lack of customers.
The Cabinet Office initiative, involving sponsored content in the regional media, will urge employers to reassure staff that it is safe to return to their workplaces and highlight measures being taken to halt the spread of coronavirus.
But the government is refusing to set any target for the return to workplaces including offices — for either the public or private sector — on the grounds that it is a matter for employers and their staff.
Data this month from the Office for National Statistics found 43 per cent of all employees were back at their workplaces, with 40 per cent operating remotely and 13 per cent on furlough.
Ministers appear at odds over whether more employees should scale back or even abandon working from home that began during the national lockdown in March.
Prime minister Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, chancellor, are keen to see more employees back in the office, reflecting how several ministers are worried about permanent damage to city centres and think there is currently too much homeworking.
But some other ministers seem relaxed about the issue. Health secretary Matt Hancock said on Thursday he had no idea how many of his department’s staff were working from home, and that what mattered was how effectively people performed.
Ministers are struggling to come up with a clear and consistent message partly because they say they cannot tell companies what to do with their employees.
They also know that if too many people return to their workplaces it risks undermining efforts at social distancing in offices and on public transport.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps said on Friday it was “safe to return to work” — but he stopped short of calling for most workers to return to the office.
“I suspect we'll see more flexible working than we’ve seen in the past and it will be for employers and employees to work out the right balance,” said Mr Shapps, in an LBC News interview from his home.
Lucy Powell, shadow business minister, called for a clearer message from ministers, saying: “These are really conflicting messages, which is the worst of all worlds.”
Adam Marshall, head of the British Chambers of Commerce, said the government should focus on giving employers and their staff the confidence to return to offices.
“Above all people need calm, consistent, evidence-based communication to take the right decisions,” he added.
Edwin Morgan, director of policy at the IoD, also said there had been conflicting messages from ministers.
“But the main issue is that businesses and their employees have negotiated a balance that works for them, and it seems unlikely that the government telling people to return to offices will make much difference on its own,” he added.
Some big employers, such as Standard Life Aberdeen, have said that most staff will not be returning to the office until early next year. Others, including Schroders, have said staff can work from home most of the time.
Downing Street had hoped the civil service could set an example through a swift return of officials to the office, but trade unions expect a majority to continue working from home until at least the end of the year.
The government’s guidance on where people should work has evolved during the Covid-19 crisis.
At the start of the pandemic, all workers who were able to operate from home were told to do so in order to curb the transmission of the virus.
But at the start of August the guidance underwent a full overhaul, with the emphasis on homeworking dropped in favour of returning to the workplace so long as it was safe.
The media campaign next week is not expected to change the guidance, but rather encourage more people to go back to the workplace.
“It is difficult for us to say anything on private companies because it’s not up to us where their staff work,” said one government official.
The problem for the government is that its existing guidance has had limited impact.
Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, said this week that city centres could become “ghost towns” unless Mr Johnson encouraged more workers back to their offices.
But, as with ministers, the CBI appears divided. Many companies that are CBI members are not planning a mass return of their employees to the workplace until next year.
At the same time, business leaders have warned that the low footfall in city centres is damaging businesses such as retailers, restaurants and pubs.
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