The time has come for the Government to give a definitive bit of advice, to codify what the Prime Minister could only splutter when he said: “Instead of ‘stay at home if you can’ – I think we should now say, well, ‘go back to work if you can’.”
The Prime Minister’s opinion on this matter was interesting but a formal instruction would be much more productive.
Many places of work are almost fully functioning, very often these are where armies of resilient and hardy people earn a living - factories, construction sites, shops, and warehouses. The people who have been more reluctant to return are the white-collar classes, people who work in offices.
Very often the bosses of these business cite the Government mantra of ‘work from home if you can’, as an excuse to leave the business premises empty and accommodate the reluctance of some colleagues – often a minority - to return to work. Conversations on these issues are difficult, business leaders will regularly hear stories that beg exceptions; sometimes they are based on sound realities, sometimes they are based on fear.
Diminishing 'fear factor'
The fear factor should be starting to diminish, the infection rate of the virus has fallen dramatically as, thankfully, has the death rate. The track and trace system is also starting to pay off with reports of hotspots being locked down at very local levels; the report of an outbreak on a farm in Herefordshire and the way in which the outbreak in Blackburn was tackled, are proof that track and trace can isolate clusters and deal with them effectively, without a general nationwide lockdown.
All that being said, I reluctantly conclude that the introduction of more compulsory masks might dent confidence among consumers and workers. The prospect of covering up while the virus is in decline, may remind people of why they were anxious when it was at its most virulent. People who were starting to find their way back to shops could easily be put off.
However, I think the reluctance of so many white-collar firms to return to the workplace is a concern that without clearer instructions from the Government they will be accused of being gung-ho.
Other sectors that were explicitly banned from opening were given explicit permission to re-open. Offices are slightly different; they were never really banned from opening and did not feature on the Government’s original closure notice in March.
However, the more general, ‘work at home if you can’ advice has been interpreted as an instruction to stay away, even though more recent safety guidance, when followed properly, allows offices to open without major problems.
Sometimes, not all colleagues can return at the same time, but shift systems, new office layouts, protective screens, rules on canteens and regular hand washing and visitor tracking can all make it possible to come into an office environment safety.
Why push for a return?
Why bother if everyone is happy? There are sound reasons. First, is the ‘velocity of thought’ theory, that in an office environment where ideas take businesses forward, an idea discussed in the moment – instead of in a structured video meeting – can take off more effectively, or, if it is bad, it can be killed more quickly. This improves productivity. Second, human beings are generally social creatures, the way in which we collaborate and support one another is more easily fostered when we see each other.
Thirdly, offices do inhabit parts of towns and cities that become clusters of economic activity. From sandwich shops to car washing, to hairdressers, bars and department stores. Cities need people and offices are their daytime home.
In my own business I have been busy encouraging our office-based workforce to spend at least some of their time together. Naturally, we are careful to be COVID-secure, but we are getting more of our call centre colleagues to spend at least part of their week at their desks rather than at home.
We have the technology to work from home, and we will maintain home working and the flexibility it brings to the business, but I’m determined to restore a sense of camaraderie that comes when we meet in the actual workplace.
Not to be left behind I am also ensuring our most senior executives meet face to face too, for the first time since February.
On Wednesday 22 July, our firm will hold its operational board meeting at Middleton Lodge near Darlington, with people coming together from all parts of the UK. We will be carrying out our normal exciting and dynamic meeting, allowing a free flow of ideas in a convivial setting which will help the interactions flow. As a business we are not sitting around during the summer waiting for the schools to return, we are open for business and ready for our customers in our place of work.
London needs 'unambiguous green light'
The beating heart of British business is the City of London. The City has served Vertu Motors plc well, being ready to invest and open to opportunities.
The best and most active investors and fund managers know about the firms and the sectors they are investing in.
This often involves face to face meetings and boots on the ground on the occasions when they come and look at the operations of top UK businesses.
However, the fact remains that too few are back to their workplace and normal operations need to resume – the impact would be tremendous in terms of engagement and investment in the next generation of world beating UK businesses.
These City firms also need Boris to give the unambiguous green light to resume working and re-open their offices. From the local legal practice in a market town, to the financial powerhouse of the City of London, to the buzzing call centres serving the British public, white collar workers need to come back. The message needs to officially change: Go to work if you can.
Author: Robert Forrester, chief executive, Vertu Motors PLC