Boris Johnson is expected this evening to effectively reverse his call for office workers to go back and instead to urge a return to working from home for those who can. It will come as a relief to some, who were understandably anxious about infection risks on lengthy commutes, but a disappointment to many others who have craved the office environment these past six months.
Make no mistake, this is a new challenge for workers and bosses alike. March’s lockdown could be approached with a certain buzz, the novelty factor allowing firms to enthusiastically arrange Zoom cocktails and joint fundraisers for staff to complete a quirky fitness challenge. Video conferencing was a pain but something to learn and develop. Difficulties of working from home were countered by the assumption this was a temporary necessity.
My impression is that most lawyers given the chance of returning to the office this month have embraced that opportunity. Many tell me they couldn’t wait to get back in some capacity. Smaller firms in provincial towns report they are mostly up to their full complement, and larger firms tell me their smaller office capacities have been filled on most days. There was a yearning to get back to normal, particularly with schools running again and pubs open for the post-work wind-down that was so missed during lockdown.
There was also, when I visited Leeds earlier this month, a real desire to make sure the eco-system of dependant businesses around the office itself was kept alive. This isn’t just about saving each and every Pret (although let’s not forget the staff in chain cafes who will lose their job because of this second office lockdown), but preserving the actual infrastructure that makes the office and its surroundings a better option (for some) than home working.
I like WFH, but I miss my old sandwich shop and its chipper workers, and I fear for what this will do to them. There is a symbiotic relationship between these local cafes and pubs and the office. One cannot flourish without the other. If something is not done then these businesses die and if/when offices are reopened in some capacity, we return to a ghost town. How many would want to return at all if it was sandwiches at desks and straight home after work?
What the answer may be, beyond propping up businesses indefinitely at enormous cost to the taxpayer, seems impossible to identify. Legions of people must stay at home until the infection rate is reduced, and that seems eons away. We do know that thousands of law firm workers will watch tonight’s announcement with dread, and will despair that those same four walls will surround them for the coming weeks if not months. No virtual drinks party will soften that blow.