Friday 4 June 2021 11:21 am

Exclusive: Government set to take 'gentle' approach to get people back to the office

The government is set to take a “gentle” approach in getting people back to the office this summer, with working from home advice also expected to be scrapped on 21 June if the roadmap goes ahead as planned.

Government sources told City A.M. that ministers will not take a hardline approach to get people back into the office, unlike last year when Number 10 briefed media outlets that workers could be sacked if they continue to work from home.

One minister said it needs to “be a co-operative, gentle reminder” that “is about extolling the virtues of people going back into work”.

Some City of London firms are slowly beginning to bring people back into the office, despite the government’s ongoing advice to work from home if possible, however footfall remains well below pre-pandemic levels.

The Cabinet Office is set to release its social distancing review in the coming weeks, which will guide if any restrictions will remain in place after 21 June – the target date to shed most or all Covid restrictions.

The Prime Minister today said there was “nothing in the data” to suggest the 21 June date would be delayed, despite rising cases and hospitalisations over the past week.

Johnson said last month that it was “our intention” to drop the government’s working from home advice if 21 June goes ahead and City A.M. understands this is still the case.

“We don’t want to force people back in, it needs to be a co-operative gentle reminder,” one minister said.

“It’s about extolling the virtues of people going back into work and, particularly in places like London, extolling the ancillary benefits of having people back in the centre.”

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The results of the [social distancing] review will help inform decisions on the timing and circumstances under which rules on one-metre-plus, face masks and other measures may be lifted. 

“The review will also inform guidance on working from home – people should continue to work from home where they can until this review is complete.”

Future of work

Footfall around the City of London and other business districts is slowing increasing, however it is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels.

Data from Transport for London (TfL) last week showed the number of Tube passengers in the City of London was 70 per cent lower than in February 2020.

Some business groups are calling for the government to help enable firms to implement a more flexible model into the future, which would see no return to the pre-Covid normal.

A growing number of bluechip corporates have already said they will turn to a mixed model of work post-lockdown, with firms like EY, Deutsche Bank and HSBC signing off on hybrid working schemes in London.

The British Chambers of Commerce has called for “businesses to have access to clear guidance, information and best practice resources” to help them “embrace the broadest range of remote, workplace and flexible working options as we emerge from the pandemic”.

Richard Burge, chief executive of London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that “once the guidance is lifted then it’s the place of the government to make sure the sufficient infrastructure is in place, rather than trying to dictate ways of working, or pace of return, to businesses”.

Federation of Small Businesses national chair Mike Cherry said: “Many small employers are now wanting to plan a hybrid approach, so that all members of staff feel comfortable in their jobs wherever they work. 

“Small firms are eager to see the government’s advice in the current review when it’s published later this month, as that will inform and underpin what small businesses decide to do.”

However, mayor of London Sadiq Khan is fast becoming a vocal advocate for workers to repopulate central London in order to increase economic activity for thousands of retail and hospitality businesses.

London’s economy has been among the worst affected by the pandemic, with Covid unemployment rates higher than the national average.

A Khan spokesperson said: “Even under a hybrid system, there remain significant long-term benefits of employees meeting regularly in the office – whether around professional development, collaboration, or the creativity that can only come from people working together in person.”

Shadow employment rights secretary Andy McDonald said “the right to flexible working must available to all who want it, and businesses should ensure that workers have the flexibility they need”.