Comfort Levels vs the Fear Factor

Are you ready to go back to work?

As a public show of support for dwindling city centres amid a faltering economy, the Prime Minister is insisting that all departments in the civil service will return to 80% capacity, or staff attending their office 4 out of every 5 days, by the end of October.

But what is the reality?

With the unions pushing back and the danger of local lockdowns looming how are those public servants feeling about being forced to return to work? Especially when it can be seen as a case of political point scoring. Civil servants have worked throughout the  pandemic, of course, and I don’t think that is lost on anyone not deemed to be on the frontline. The valiant health workers of the National Health Service, along with the police, fire and ambulance services, and the army have not been awarded the luxury of the furlough, or even the basic workers’ right of home working. Some teachers never took a break too, attending makeshift classes in extraordinary circumstances to allow those frontline workers with children, peace of mind that their kids are being looked after and educated.

Everyone will eventually return to work. We will all return to the office. We will get there by train or tube or bus. People may wash their hands a bit more frequently, and hand sanitizing will be an ordinary occurrence. But the timing of the Prime Minister’s statement could be seen to be a bit premature. Some in the press suggest that infection rates are so low that we could already be back at the office. But that is the press. What do the civil servants think? And we are not talking the big wigs of Whitehall here, following party lines.

There are over 400,000 full-time civil servants working across the nation. These are the people who ensure the street lights remain on, the roads are paved, kids are adopted, the homeless are housed, the seas are safe, restaurants adhere to health and safety standards, and many many more tasks that make our life better. What do they think about being forced back?

One survey of a department showed that just over half of the employees would prefer to stay remote working for the remainder of the calendar year, whilst two thirds of respondents do want to return to the office, but only once a second wave of the virus is averted, or weathered. The takeaway there is that a third would prefer to stay working from home in the longer term.

This poses a problem for the senior management of such departments. How can they show that they are doing enough to allay the fears of the workers and get them back behind their desks? This is difficult. In the same survey 75% of respondents stated that they were comfortable with the measures put in place, the social distancing guidelines, one-way systems around the office, single occupancy toilet arrangements, hand sanitizer and mask access, daily antiviral cleaning and staggered work shifts. But as only half are willing to return now, more is clearly needed. Or is it maybe that what is needed, is just more time. The virus is still very present. People have the right to be afraid.

They also have the right not to be

It is a question of fear factor versus comfort levels, and, outside of actual lockdown, and police on the streets stopping people from making unnecessary journeys, it always has been. Forcing people to return to the office, while the remote working technology is so good and has meant that there has been a minimal drop in productivity, will cause contention. People will choose their perceived wellbeing and the safety of their family over satisfying a boss, who is trying to push a department back to work before they are ready, just to adhere to the word of the PM.

When the economy starts to recover, employees will vote with their feet. We do have to go back to the office some time. But that time needs to be when you are ready. So, what do you need to be motivated and ready to return to the office?