It really is the unanswerable question – nevertheless it remains the ultimate dilemma facing Government. And aren’t rival politicians and our mischievous media making the most of ministers’ discomfort?
In the scramble to ‘Save lives and the NHS’, Boris and his colleagues originally urged people outside of the ‘essential services’ to work from home, backing this up with grim predictions of the possible consequences of failing to do so, including the risks to health and the crude threat of fines. What started out as fatherly advice morphed into a formal instruction.
Being largely an obedient society and suitably terrified to-boot, most people did as they were told. It helped that our Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, splashed out huge wads of our cash to help keep individual citizens and businesses afloat. But hardly surprising that trains were (and still are) running virtually empty, schools were closed, planes vanished from the skies and city centre offices were abandoned. Many shops and other services reliant on office workers and travelers face financial ruin as a result, likewise our theatres.
It’s therefore a bit rich for the Government suddenly to tell us that all’s well again, that it’s safe to travel by public transport and return to the office job. First, with the latest spike in COVID-19 infections, the statistics are indicating that right now we should do exactly the opposite.
Second, and arguably more relevant in the long-term, office workers have discovered that they prefer working from home. Recent academic studies reveal that 88% want to carry on that way and that nearly half (47%) want it to become a permanent arrangement. What makes the argument more compelling – if inconvenient for ministers – is that productivity has not been adversely affected at all. In fact, nearly a third (29%) say they get more done at home without all the time and money spent commuting.
The counter arguments are that the spontaneity, creativity, innovation and trust engendered by working physically within a group are lost. But even if that’s true, it might be more difficult to prove statistically. Most companies are more concerned with staying afloat.
In the meantime, it is worth pointing out that not everyone works in an office – engineers usually don’t have a choice of workplace. Most employers and employees will doubtless apply common sense to the problem, but it seems fundamentally wrong to ask members of the public to choose between their health and their job. Most are unlikely to feel safe until a reliable vaccine becomes widely available.