Why businesses need to be part of the solution to the pandemic

Jitesh Patel, CEO Workplace strategy, Learning

As we enter the new year, the latest wave of the pandemic continues to cause uncertainty for both the workforce and business leaders. Companies in England are still impacted by work from home guidance, with no indication of when this will be lifted. Many have spent months making sure that their offices are safe for teams to work in and they are arguably one of the most controllable environments. So, why aren’t businesses being asked to be part of the solution to understanding how we function more productively with this virus in society?

The stop-start challenge

The central issue is that continual changes in guidance create a stop-start economy, where businesses cannot plan ahead. We must remember that huge parts of the economy are reliant on office workers. Retail, transport and hospitality all struggle to sustain themselves without this steady traffic, particularly in towns and cities. This recent work from home guidance is arguably the most troubling for these sectors as they don’t have the support we saw in the first lockdown, and they also don’t know from one day to the next how many people will be using their services or buying their products. To put this into comparison, in April 2021 when restrictions were lifted, almost half of UK office workers were back at their desks, but now this is back down to just 20%. That means fewer people picking up their morning coffee or going for a drink after a day in the office, injecting much needed life into the economy of city centres.

For office-based industries, this stop-start approach has also had a huge impact on operations. Companies need to be able to plan long-term, and temporary policies and woolly guidance simply don’t allow this. Businesses have invested huge sums of money making sure that they have Covid secure environments and are trying their best to protect jobs in the face of so much uncertainty.

There is also the direct impact on the workforce. Many have questioned who the decision to work from home sits with. Is it the individual or their line manager? There is no clarity, meaning that people are essentially left to fend for themselves and we will continue to see the damaging impact that the isolation of long-term working from home has on society.

Breaking the cycle

So, what can we do differently? The truth of the matter is that Covid isn’t going away. For 2022 and beyond, we must ask ourselves how we will adapt to new variants and even future pandemics without continuously derailing our way of life. In turn, businesses must also ask how they will adapt and become part of a long-term solution that breaks the current stop-start cycle of our economy, but this can only happen if they are allowed more autonomy over these decisions.

Businesses leaders and office managers put a great deal of effort towards ensuring that office spaces were Covid secure when people first returned to the workplace, and it’s concerning that this does not seem to have been considered when guidance has been implemented. A negative lateral flow test and a Covid pass can allow you to get into a busy nightclub or a sporting event, so, if it works for the hospitality industry, why can’t it be implemented in the workplace?

Nevertheless, one of the biggest concerns with transmission and working from the office, particularly in the capital and other major cities, comes from the commute. Employees will often be cramming onto busy train or tube carriages, posing a greater risk of infection, but there are ways businesses can help here too. By offering more flexible work hours and start times, you can alleviate the need for staff to be travelling at peak times in rush hour, which provides an extra layer of reassurance, and it’s something we have already successfully implemented with our own workforce at Peldon Rose.

Being part of the solution

The business community needs to be given the tools from Government to create further safeguards to allow people to work from offices, whether that is introducing daily workplace testing, Covid office passes or more robust test and trace measures.

In the last 18 months, an entire generation of people starting their careers will have never really experienced working in an office full time, and this may not change for the foreseeable future. These young people have arguably missed out most whilst working from home. Joining the business community for the first time, the networking opportunities we depend on to foster strong relationships that help with future career opportunities have been nearly non-existent. Then, they are forgoing the collaboration and knowledge sharing that is only possible when people are in the same room together. In turn, businesses are missing out on the fresh perspective that these younger members of the team can bring to spontaneous discussion.

Maintaining a learning environment

Importantly, Government is prioritising that schools remain open, with a return to distance learning a last resort. We understand the benefits of in-person learning within the education sector, so why isn’t the same applied to those learning their craft in the world of work?

Equally, it’s clear that pupils benefit from a teacher’s presence in the classroom, and managers, mentors and senior leaders in business need to take responsibility for the next generation of talent. While it may be possible to impart some knowledge within a hybrid setting, soft skills like people management and situational problem-solving cannot be developed remotely. Throughout our careers, we gain both professional and personal skills from overseeing impromptu interactions between colleagues and clients. In business, leaders have a responsibility to give our more junior colleagues the same opportunity to learn by osmosis and this will not happen whilst we are confined to home offices.

Workspaces are needed so that people can learn and develop together, while sharing ideas to improve their own work and that of others around them.

We passionately believe that people work better together in shared workspaces. It makes individuals more productive. It makes teams more productive. If you want to get the best out of your business, creating the perfect physical working environment that empowers your staff is the ideal starting point. So, let’s start working together better to make sure this can happen.

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