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Omicron variant: Should your business go back to working from home?

Business leaders have their say on on whether the UK needs new WFH guidance

An abstract design showing a concept for coronavirus and its variants

Reported cases of the Omicron variant in both England and Scotland have led to calls for tough restrictions to be re-implemented across the UK.

Specifically, experts, including Sage, have called for a return to remote working to curb the rise in cases.

Little is known about the Omicron variant as yet, though health officials suggest it is more transmissible than the dominant Delta strain that was discovered at the end of 2020. However, new COVID cases have been steadily rising since October, according to the latest government figures. As of 2 December, there were 53,945 daily positive tests reported and 848 deaths over the previous seven days. 

So far, ministers in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have all advised people to work from home if they can. England is the only nation in the UK to not follow suit, with Boris Johnson commenting that working from home was "not currently necessary" when asked during a press conference on 30 November.

That was backed by the UK's health secretary, Sajid Javid, who told BBC's Andrew Marr: "I don't think [WFH] is necessary, because this is about taking proportionate action against the risks that we face."

Returning to the office has been a dominant topic of discussion throughout 2021, but the year is in danger of ending as it began, with the public forced back in doors. The first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, recently said that remote working would give Scotland "the best possible chance of enjoying not just a more normal Christmas, but a safer Christmas".  

Hybrid offices

Whether or not organisations are advised to work remotely, Andrew Mawson, co-founder and director of global consultancy Advanced Workplace Associates, believes it's crucial to acknowledge that the UK is in a completely different place to where it was last year.

"There is no comparison between being told to work remotely in March 2020 and being told to do so now," Mawson said. "Based on our research and the conversations we are having with clients, most organisations have already embraced a hybrid way of working where employees split their time between working remotely and being physically in the office, and they are utilising that model rather effectively and productively.

"So as they are working remotely anyway, and in today's tech and virtually-led workplace, I'm more than confident that employees can adapt and it will be 'business as usual' if the government reintroduces a remote working directive," he added.

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Despite many businesses being more ready than ever to make the switch back, Jitesh Patel, the CEO of office design company Peldon Rose, suggests a complete remote working mandate should still be a last resort, ultimately decided by individuals and businesses.

"If staff feel safe, and companies are responsible in the way they are operating, I expect employees will assess how they feel and make a decision based on their individual situation," Patel said. "It is therefore up to companies to ensure their employees have a safe environment to work from, whilst helping to reduce the spread of the new variant."

The issue is far more complicated than simply deciding to usher in new policies, as each business also has a duty to keep its employees happy and, most importantly, remain open to their concerns, according to Astrid Beekhuis, director of HR at US chemical firm Momentive.

"It is crucial that businesses are listening to their employees at this time," Beekhuis said. "Feedback has never been more important in shaping office policies as staff may be more apprehensive about travelling into the office to work."

Asam Akhtar, the UK channel manager for workplace platform Envoy suggests the most effective way the government and businesses can protect the health and safety of employees is by implementing COVID testing requirements that call for weekly tests.

"Unfortunately, it looks like we may be living with Covid and its variants for the foreseeable future, so we have to learn how to create safe workplaces where people can continue to connect in-person, collaborate and thrive," Akhtar said. "The first step is being vigilant about safety precautions. The next step is helping employers implement the right technology to make real-time, data-informed decisions that make work spaces safer."

The "great resignation" 

UK employees have been reporting anxiety around the return to work long before the discovery of the Omicron variant. According to research from RingCentral, around 66% would rather continue working from home and 65% suggested they would rather clean the toilet than go back to commuting. What's more, around 25% said they would look for a new job if they were forced back into the office.

Over 700,000 Brits moved jobs from April to June 2021, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). That roughly equates to 2.6% of the UK's workforce, which is the highest in a decade. RingCentral's research suggests that this apparent "great resignation" is actually being driven by younger people, with almost a third (32%) of those aged 21-24 suggesting they plan to leave their place of employment, with a further 27% planning to leave in the next six months. What's more, a third (33%) of those aged between 25-34, suggested they would look for a new job if their employer changes their work model to a more in-person approach.

"The last 18 months have proven that with the right collaboration tools, it is possible not only to build highly productive teams, but also meaningful human connections with colleagues to generate positive working relationships," Steve Rafferty, country manager, UK and Ireland, RingCentral, said. "One way or another, the data is clear: if businesses want to retain their staff they need to offer an environment that caters to modern needs."

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