Mark Harper is a former Chief Whip, and is MP for the Forest of Dean. He was Immigration Minister from 2012 to 2014.
Last week, we got another reminder that coronavirus has not gone away. The epidemiologist with a slight cult following – Professor Jonathan “don’t tear the pants out of it” Van-Tam – described the recent uptick in cases across the country as evidence that people’s vigilance has been “relaxed too much”, and that the virus must be taken seriously or the UK will face “a bumpy ride over the next few months”.
We have heard lots about the need for people to ‘get back to work’. It is important to note that many have been working in their workplaces throughout the pandemic, such as those in food production, essential retail, health and social care and many other designated ‘key workers’. Many sectors that did have to close during lockdown have gradually reopened over the summer.
The big debate at the moment is about those who work in offices and about how quickly they should return to the office full time. Having spoken to a number of businesses of all types in my own constituency over the summer and looked at survey evidence, I have a slightly different take.
First, employers have a duty to operate in a Covid secure way and that means big reductions in office capacity. Most office workers can’t go back to the office full time even if they and their employers wanted them to. This is going to continue until we have an effective vaccine or treatments, which means at least until spring 2021.
Second, I think the experience of the last few months will have caused what my former employer Intel (co-founded by Andy Grove, a man admired in Downing Street) would have called a “paradigm shift”.
Even when we have a vaccine and treatments, where some workers are back in the office full time, some will work from home full time and most will do a mixture.
Why do I think that? During lockdown, businesses were forced to do things in new ways. They tested the limits of technology and remote working, and many of them found that large parts of people’s jobs can be done very effectively remotely and indeed, in many cases, productivity went up. There are of course important reasons why people need to be in the office, whether it’s for training or working collaboratively on projects but this will only make up a percentage of their role.
A recent audit of big companies found many are not planning for the majority of workers to return to offices until at least towards the end of the year, with only 25 per cent of firms surveyed planning to bring staff back by the end of this month.
Such companies as RBS, KPMG, Google and Facebook are keeping the vast majority of their UK office staff working from home until next year. Some companies like Unilever and Vodafone have said that they expect a hybrid style of office-based and remote working to become the new normal. After all, this is effectively what MPs do – working for part of the week in Westminster, and part of the week in their constituencies.
There are groups who have found that working from home can be advantageous – those who have caring responsibilities who need a more flexible working routine and disabled people who can benefit from using the technology to carry out their work tasks.
Whilst it is appropriate for Government to set out guidance, based on the best scientific and public health advice, for how workers can operate in a Covid secure way, it is for businesses to decide how to manage and deploy their staff whilst complying with that guidance. As a Conservative, I don’t believe another layer of ministerial micromanagement helps anyone.
As companies adapt accordingly, there is going to be a significant change in cities where large numbers of office workers used to commute to work every day.
Businesses that provided services for those workers will have to adapt, as we have seen with Pret A Manger developing a delivery service. In some cases, businesses will not exist in their current form. Sadly, that’s going to have an inevitable impact on jobs.
One of the ways that the impact on the domestic labour market can be limited is by using immigration policy more effectively, particularly once the EU transition period ends on the 31st December.
The sectors most impacted by this change are those which have been very dependent in the recent past on large quantities of migrant labour, particularly from the EU. For example, 14 per cent of the retail, hotels, restaurants workforce are international migrants, with about half a million EU nationals employed here. Nearly one in every four tourism workers in London are non-British nationals, while one in five are EU nationals.
In sum, we must not be complacent. We are going to be living with Covid for some time and must be able to get on with our lives while keeping the virus under control.
Most office workers aren’t going to be able to return until there is a vaccine or treatment and, even then, I think the new normal will be an office-remote working hybrid.
The regrettable but necessary impact on jobs can be minimised by using the extra control we will have over migration once we leave the EU transition period at the end of the year.