If workers don't return to office, Boris can forget his 'levelling up'

Ocado chairman STUART ROSE warns Boris Johnson can forget his ‘levelling up’ if workers don’t return to the office and Britain PLC faces going bust

The Government has done a first-class job in frightening people about Covid-19 – perhaps the only thing it’s done really well in the past six months. Today, many millions of otherwise sensible British citizens fear that this virus could kill them and that Covid could even pose a threat to humanity itself.

They are wrong. And the result of this needless fear is a destructive limbo – a new normal of half-empty trains, deserted cinemas and shops without customers.

Banks are shutting early, choirs are silent, many swimming pools lie empty while professional sport has become an eerie ritual for TV viewers only. The fact that so many are starting to embrace this shrunken life, even as we haemorrhage businesses and jobs, is truly dangerous.

And at the very heart of this zombie economy are the empty offices in towns and cities across the country, amid claims that working from home is not only viable for most white-collar workers, but somehow beneficial and more productive.

I disagree profoundly: to abandon our places of work is to make a catastrophic error. The economic arguments scarcely need repeating.

Ministers must convince people that travelling on public transport is not a serious health risk, writes STUART ROSE (file image)

Offices and their workers are, or rather were, the life blood of city centres which were already dying. Millions more jobs will be lost when the furlough scheme ends in the coming weeks. Today, The Mail on Sunday reveals that the economic hit could be as high as half a trillion pounds.

And, after a lifetime in business, from Marks & Spencer to my current roles chairing a number of diverse companies, I can tell you that offices are important for other reasons, too.

They are social hubs where lifelong friendships can be made; they provide an invaluable educational tool to workers as a space where people can better themselves by watching, listening and learning from their colleagues; and they are places that buzz, full of creative energy and enthusiasm where ideas get sparked and developed.

I’m particularly concerned that a mass shift towards home working will widen what is already a troubling social divide. The old saying that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer will become more of a reality for Britain. We can forget any of Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ if working from home continues.

For if the office dies, how will our youngsters learn to get on in life? Rubbing shoulders with those who are more experienced is an important part of growing up.

One of the key ways that people advance is by learning how to connect and how to improve themselves. You can’t do that looking at a computer screen. It is not all about intelligence and knowledge, it is about how we learn to deal with situations, how to collaborate and how to navigate life.

When I started as a trainee manager at Marks & Spencer in the early 1970s, I learnt on the job and from my peers and older colleagues around me. As a junior I would get the opportunity to sit in on meetings to learn from elders and betters. I fed off working with some very energetic and brilliant colleagues.

I learnt new skills, how not to do things and how to handle myself. And when I was a senior manager I always tried to make sure that my employees got something from me that might improve their abilities, understanding and knowledge. Staff in every office up and down the country are there to offer advice, guidance and encouragement to younger colleagues at every level. How can you possibly learn this stuff sitting at a computer screen at home, a home, moreover, that might be cramped, noisy and quite unsuitable for work?

And at the very heart of this zombie economy are the empty offices in towns and cities across the country, amid claims that working from home is not only viable for most white-collar workers, but somehow beneficial and more productive, writes STUART ROSE (file image)

Neither remote or flexible working are new, both have been around a long time. There is a reason, however, that neither have been adopted by firms on a mass scale.

Indeed, we have seen in the past six months that there is a limit to how far we can push it.

I, too, have spent the past six months staring at a screen, whether on Zoom or Microsoft Teams, conducting meetings, running boards and holding senior management meetings. These virtual meetings are not anywhere near as effective as the real thing. Why? Because if you are chairing, or participating in, a meeting over your computer rather than in person, how can you get a true feel of what is going on?

It is very hard to read the room; to see who is pulling a face; or who is coming along grudgingly; or who has come to make a point. Business might get done to some extent but certainly not as effectively.

What’s more, everyone works better in teams rather than as individuals, that is how the best ideas emerge. For us to even think that a workforce can be as productive independently rather than in a team is utter nonsense. Many white-collar workers are simply playing a game and dragging their heels. Yet much of the backbone of Britain have had no choice but to return to work; whether builders, hairdressers, plumbers or delivery men and women. At the moment it feels like the tail wagging the dog when it comes to our office workers and this must change.

There is a case to be made that there should be consequences for those members of staff who are not willing to return, whether that means a reduction in salary or removing other benefits.

At the same time, there needs to be a massive ramping up of effective testing to give staff the confidence that regular health monitoring is in place at their workplaces. So how do we stop this crazy situation, in which some people are going back to work in dribs and drabs, and others are dictating their own terms?

First, the Government has a huge role to play. While the right noises are being made, they need to amend their social distancing measures in offices which are a huge stumbling block. If they insist on the two- metre rule and stopping more than four people getting into a lift at the same time, then how are large offices to function? This should be looked at as a matter of urgency.

Everyone works better in teams rather than as individuals, that is how the best ideas emerge, writes STUART ROSE (file image)

Second, Ministers must convince people that travelling on public transport is not a serious health risk. Instead, they have created logjams on roads in London and a ghost town below on the Tube. It is absurd. Ultimately, if you tell people that it is dangerous to get on public transport, regardless of face coverings or staggered timings, then they will understandably refuse to use it.

We are at a crossroads: we either get people back to their offices and at full productivity immediately, or we accept this way of working and the dire costs that will come with it. The current situation is unsustainable. Many will have enjoyed their spring and summer breaks without a commute – the opportunity to see more of their families and enjoy the sunny weather in their gardens or local parks, while saving money on travel, food and coffee.

Winter, however, is approaching, and as the long nights draw in, we will be exposed to the cold, dark and extremely harsh economic and social realities of abandoning the office. Today we know far more about the virus than we did in March and we understand that it impacts some more than others.

We can’t keep living in such a state of fear. Millions of Britons are, essentially, fine to return to work. Many people have no choice but to go out and work, from NHS staff, bus drivers, supermarket workers and many others, so why should there be one rule for one and one rule for another?

It is time for some real leadership, from business leaders and from the Government. These people are paid to make tough, and unpopular, decisions.

The Government needs to make sure that their departments take the lead – they must demand that civil servants return immediately. Equally, the private sector needs to also be more demanding of its workforce and stop allowing the tail to wag the dog.

Of course, pressurising staff to go back might be unpopular with some but unless the UK returns to its offices our society will be permanently damaged and our economy simply will not function. It is hard to comprehend but UK PLC faces going bust.

The choice is yours, Britain.

The fee for this article has been donated to the Mvumi School, Tanzania.

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