By Professor Denis Kinane, Immunologist and Founding Scientist at Cignpost Diagnostics
It has been over two years since the pandemic led to a large section of the population working from home. However, with the easing of COVID restrictions, the anticipated rush to return to the office has not materialised. Instead, COVID’s lingering nature, its many variants, and general uncertainty about whether a return to the office is really needed, has led to wide-spread inertia.
In fact, British workers are now leading the world in refusing to return to the office. Footfall in London’s office hubs is down a staggering 30% on pre-pandemic levels and nearly a quarter of British workers would rather quit or find a new job than go back to the office. Moreover, according to the ONS, more than 80% who worked from home during the pandemic have said they will continue to carry out hybrid working in the future.
For many, continuing high levels of infection have been one important influencing factor, whether due to ongoing fears of infection for themselves or vulnerable relatives or an inability to get vaccinated. However, there are also many people who prefer working from home for much of the time, to avoid long commutes or to achieve a better work/life balance.
Preparing for a potential summer / autumn surge
Despite a fall in the number of infections and, thankfully, levels of hospitalisations due to COVID, the number of people testing positive remains persistently high. The long-anticipated Employment Bill was set to offer clarity on flexible working rights and the return-to-office mandates. However, this was omitted from the Queen’s Speech, so that leaves it to businesses themselves to determine how best to handle hybrid working or those who want to work from home on a more permanent basis.
It makes sense that employers should work to provide the reassurance that a return to work remains a safe environment, in the form of a comprehensive COVID prevention plan. This will also enable them to be better prepared if, as many experts predict, the emergence of two new strains of the Omicron variant (BA.4 and BA.5) trigger a surge in Europe’s Covid-19 cases this summer and autumn.
From ensuring only a certain number of people work from the office every day to maximise social distancing measures, to setting up multiple hygiene stations and encouraging employees to wipe down any common equipment they are using throughout the day, there are some easy-to-adopt precautions employers can take to prevent the rapid spread of the virus.
In truth, businesses face a choice: either they can retain some social distancing in their offices, mask wearing for those who want it and even increased ventilation where that is possible, though that means they are likely to use more office space for fewer people than pre pandemic; or they can have offices working as before but with a regular testing programme in place.
Can testing be a solution?
Many businesses continue to encourage paid-for tests before coming into work, or at the office. A well-rounded testing system enables employers to plan for multiple contingencies, including how to deal with individual or group outbreaks. It is important to demonstrate that employers are concerned about and are prepared to take action to secure everyone’s safety and wellbeing.
As there are no more free test kits funded by the Government, businesses must decide if they are going to provide free tests themselves to fill that void. With more than half of Londoners believing that regular self-testing formed part of the ‘new normal’, it seems likely that businesses that fund free testing are likely to turn the tide on Britain’s flexible working exodus by getting higher numbers of staff to return to the office.
Bespoke COVID-safe plans for business travellers
With international business travel on the rise, and with COVID-19 infections still prevalent across the globe, clarity in information around differing preventive measures will play a vital role in reassuring and protecting staff as they travel around the world. Businesses need to provide accurate and timely information, keeping on top of changing guidance, to ensure individuals can travel in a hassle-free manner.
Over the course of the pandemic, Cignpost Diagnostics has seen many businesses create COVID-safe environments and effectively guide employees through the chaos created by a constantly mutating virus. There is a definite value in instituting proactive measures to protect employees against the virus and businesses that have taken the initiative to protect employees have been observed to have maintained better business continuity.
Hybrid working is here to stay
While there is much media discussion and speculation as to the benefits of hybrid working, most businesses will require their employees to return to offices at some point, for reasons of productivity, cohesion, and training.
The pandemic has placed a long-overdue focus on people’s health and wellbeing. Responsible businesses can take the opportunity to implement a comprehensive COVID surveillance and prevention plan to help mitigate against future outbreaks. One side benefit of these kinds of arrangements is that, over time, it is likely to drive a wider societal shift toward businesses spearheading preventative tactics, which could ultimately have a profound impact on improving health outcomes for their staff and ensuring sustained business productivity.