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Back to the office?

Is this really the time to get staff back into city offices? The Imprudent Accountant gives the government's latest idea a big thumbs down.

1st Sep 2020
Partner An unnamed firm
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returning to the office in a face mask
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Having spent so long telling people to remain at home, then introducing one of their “encouragement” messages to suggest that people might like to go back to the office if they have nothing better to do, the government is apparently now changing tack yet again.

The latest entreaty is to suggest that employers go all out to tell their employees how safe offices will be and get them to return to their places of work in the very near future.

Rather than focusing on the needs of employers or the safety of employees, the motivation seems to be entirely economic, since Rishi Sunak is worried about businesses in city centres.

Perhaps more accurately, he is worried about the need to extend the furlough scheme, which will be a necessity if the economy remains in freefall.

The messages come across even more powerfully from the Daily Telegraph, quoting an unnamed senior Tory minister who believes that employers should hand P45s to those who do not return to work, even if this might threaten their lives, which could be the case for those that were ordered to shelter and face the pain of locking themselves away for five months.

I don’t want to be unkind to the senior minister or the Daily Telegraph but if you do go down this road, beware. In these circumstances, any half-decent employment lawyer should be able to cook up a discrimination case without too much effort, which could make the dismissal unfair and very expensive.

I also wonder whether the anonymous minister has actually ever worked in a real job? Anyone running a firm of accountants would be looking to lose their least productive members of staff. Based on all of the empirical evidence that has emerged over the last six months, the most productive people are those working from their home offices, suffering far fewer interruptions and saving hours of commuting time, not to mention the inevitable stress, each day.

Regardless of that, without wishing to seem less than public-spirited, we are accountants and therefore should be looking at nothing other than the best interests of our businesses and our loyal staff members.

There are many considerations. First, we could probably only accommodate around 20% of staff, even if they are willing to come in and we want to see them.

Secondly, in order to do this, we would have to spend a considerable sum to make our offices Covid-safe, although since even scientists don’t fully understand what this means, the best we can manage is some kind of approximation. With rules changing at dizzying speed due to government U-turns, what works on a Monday might need revamping by Tuesday anyway.

In terms of productivity, as suggested above while some staff members might benefit from the social advantages of turning up to work every day, most will achieve a great deal more by working from home.

Presumably, we also get other advantages such as not needing to shell out for season ticket loans, face problems when staff are delayed by terrible train services and, conceivably, be able to agree with staff that in return for treating them so well and bearing in mind the economic climate, we can limit pay rises.

Realistically, there could be considerable benefits in allowing staff to choose how many days they wish to attend each week. This would give management a chance to organise effectively and periodically ask people to make the occasional visit for important meetings or even merely to remind each other that they exist. This could be particularly important in terms of generating work, which is often best achieved informally face-to-face.

There are many other considerations including the risk that those who come into the office pick up the virus and are obliged to stay off work for at least two weeks, possibly taking many colleagues with them. This risk will be exacerbated if your office is in a big city and workers have to use public transport.

Many accountants from the big boys down to much smaller practices have discovered that there are significant advantages to allowing staff to work from home and it seems ridiculous to give these up merely in order to save the odd sandwich shop or restaurant.

The obvious way forward is to ignore the Prime Minister, continue to operate in a manner that generates the maximum profit for your practice while keeping staff happy and let others worry about the economy.

Have you returned to the office? Should staff return to the office or does the benefits of remote working outweigh the need to save the economy? 

Replies (4)

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By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
01st Sep 2020 20:02

its not about the sandwich shops.

The issue is most buildings are leased from a (relatively) small number of powerful groups. They are quite rightly going white with fear that businesses will have worked out in the past 6 months they simply don't need an expensive office in the city to house every worker every day.

The contraction in commercial property in the next 5 years will be severe as business move to a home working model for most service occupations, reversing the pre-covid standard pattern of "4 days in, one at home" to be "one in, 4 at home" so those that pay the puppets that pass for government these days are commanding them to ditch all the public health issues and get bums in seats before some wealthy donors get burnt.

Virtually no-one I speak to in senior management is going back to the city full time. Commuters have finally tasted freedom, and they like it. No amount of bluster from Cuming's [you cant spell that right or you get ***'d] government is going to change the raw economics.

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By ShayaG
02nd Sep 2020 11:17

My guess is that over the next 5-15 years we see a lot more residential development in city centres. I don't think the big commercial property boys will be out of pocket in a massive way unless they fail to adopt.

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By Russell51
02nd Sep 2020 08:53

City centres were already dying, but this situation has just accelerated it. I'm not concerned - instead of city centre sandwich shops/mini supermarkets, people will shop locally, and with the time saved on commuting they will join local gyms, activity clubs etc and be spending on hobbies. I just hope that this leads to the city centre jobs relocating eventually rather than being totally lost.

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