28 August 2020
Decisions taken over the next few weeks will shape our economy for a decade. Getting schools back is an essential component. But as important will be building the right environment to get people back into offices and workplaces.
The UK’s offices are vital drivers of our economy. They support thousands of local firms, from drycleaners to sandwich bars. They help train and develop young people. And they foster better work and productivity for many kinds of business.
The costs of office closure are becoming clearer by the day. Some of our busiest city centres resemble ghost towns, missing the usual bustle of passing trade. This comes at a high price for local businesses, jobs and communities.
Remote working has been a resounding success for many firms and employees, and none of these benefits should be lost. Many people have never worked harder, keeping businesses afloat from their desks and kitchen tables. Flexible working is here to stay and needs to remain an option for many.
But there are serious downsides too. For young people, learning face-to-face in the workplace is an unbeatable way to build skills and confidence. We must not deprive the next generation of this opportunity. Not everyone has the space to work effectively at home – an ironing board in the bedroom does not make a great workspace. And the mental health challenges triggered by isolation are all too real for many.
There is also the question of fairness. Many employees, from barbers to brewers, have no option to work from home. We don’t want to see a new divide in our society - between those who can and can’t work from the safety and comfort of their homes.
For all these reasons we need more people to feel it is safe and possible to go back into their places of work.
This is why we are today calling on the Prime Minister and his government to do more to build confidence around getting people back into offices and workplaces.
Getting schools open safely is a vital first step to enable parents to go back to work, but they must stay open wherever possible. This means effective test and trace, and a focus on resilience.
We need government, nationally and locally, to do much more to build confidence in public transport. They need to shout louder about safety measures in place, enforce the wearing of face masks on tubes, buses and trains, and support the introduction of flexible season tickets so people can return gradually without financial penalty.
And we urgently need mass widespread testing – including in the workplace – to help people feel confident and safe. We welcome the Health Secretary’s recent commitment to a mass testing strategy for 2021.
More flexible working is indisputably a good thing for our economy and quality of life, but we must have a balance. It’s time for the UK to bring its workplaces back to life, or we will look back with regret at the jobs lost, training missed, and communities harmed. We ask the government to work with business to build confidence in returning to offices, starting now.
Dame Carolyn Fairbairn is CBI Director-General