Working from home: ‘We get more done in the office’

The boss of a City firm says he is unhappy about new work-from-home guidance as his staff will get less done when they’re not in the office.

Employees in England should work remotely if they can from Monday.

Road traffic and footfall on public transport fell sharply on Monday compared to a week ago, data shows.

Andrew Monk of VSA Capital called the rules frustrating and inconsistent. But some workers said they now felt safer as the Omicron variant spread.

The new advice brings England in line with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Some 37% of working UK adults worked from home in 2020, suggesting many frontline employees will be unaffected by the guidance.

Mr Monk, who employs 20 staff in London, said he had spent “a lot of time” making sure his office was safe and all of his staff had come back.

He said most were happier to be in, because it was “good for their lives, but also good for the business as well”.

‘Party but don’t go to work’
“This is a very live industry, you need a lot of interaction, bouncing ideas around, meeting people,” he told the BBC’s Today programme.

“We have quite clear proof that where we do fundraisings, for instance, and we do one-on-one meetings with clients, we raise far more money than when it is done on a Zoom call.”

He also criticised the fact that the government was allowing people to continue socialising over the festive period and hold Christmas parties. “This time last year, we were being told, go to work but don’t party, but now we’re being told, party but don’t go to work. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Use of public transport falls sharply

There was a 20% drop in footfall at railway stations managed by Network Rail on Monday morning compared with a week ago. Its locations include major terminus stations in London, Birmingham and Manchester.

Meanwhile, passenger numbers on London Underground fell by 18% compared with last week.

Figures from location technology firm TomTom show cities across England experienced a decline in road traffic early Monday. In London at 8am, congestion levels were down from 72% two weeks ago to 60%.

In Birmingham it dropped from 87% to 55%, Bristol from 60% to 41%, and Leeds from 74% to 43%.

‘Loss of team working’

Joseff Saunders is a coastal scientist at Plymouth’s Coastal Observatory and works in a team of eight. He said working from home made simple tasks more difficult and it was harder to get support from teammates.

“I just feel like there’s a bit of a loss of team working,” he told the BBC.

“It’s really easy these days to turn on Zoom to have a meeting, but you lose a bit of granularity when you head down that route.”

Businesses that rely on commuters, such as caf├ęs and pubs, have also criticised the rules, which they say will result in a huge drop in passing trade.

Electronics firm Dyson, for example, has also asked some of its IT and research staff to come into the office. In a statement, the firm said some of its workers still needed to commute for “practical, confidentiality and security reasons”.

Meanwhile, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has warned ministers against “a lockdown mentality”. CBI director-general Tony Danker said the working from home guidance should be lifted “as soon as it is safe to do so”.

“The economy should remain as open as is feasibly safe to do so in the coming weeks,” he said.

“The bar should be high when it comes to any new restrictions on economic activity beyond Plan B.”

‘Definitely safer’
However, other firms successfully adopted hybrid working models before the latest guidance came in. And some workers say they feel happier, more productive and safer working remotely.

Jenny Watts, who in financial services in Bradley Stoke, said: “I definitely feel safer working from home and not commuting.

“People close the bus windows as it’s cold, there isn’t proper social spacing and many don’t wear masks.”

Ms Watts also explained working from home gave her a better work-life balance, despite some of the hurdles. “I get to see my family more and don’t have to waste hours commuting.”

‘Staff already prepared’

Phil Foster, chief executive at Love Energy Savings, an energy retailer based in Bolton, told the BBC that most employees preferred to work at home.

“We’ve been ready for this for a long time and have a good rhythm for working easily from home.

“Staff have been able to handle this really smoothly and it’s comforting for me to know the staff are safe and can hopefully have a normal Christmas.”

According to a recent survey of the firm’s 290 staff, 60% said they wanted home working to stay, while 100% wanted the option to work from the office and home.

Some have warned that working from home can impact mental health. But Lynne Ingram, managing associate at the law firm Freeths, said: “You hear people say they are more productive in the office, but you also see employees saying they are working longer hours because they are working from home.

“Obviously there are a lot of mental health issues with regard to that.”

Can my boss force me to come in?
Those still expected to come into work have a right to raise their concerns if they feel their workplace isn’t safe, or if they are concerned about their commute, Ms Ingram said.

“Everybody has particular health concerns or family issues, and some people have a longer commute and are worried about public transport.”

Some employers have been refreshing their health and safety standards to make sure their workplaces are as safe as possible, she said.

Even if employees are working from home, their employer has an obligation to ensure they are working safely, she added.

That might mean checking when they are logging on and off to make sure they are not overworking, as well as ensuring they had taken their rest breaks.