Are we all set and raring to go back to the office?
Are we ready for the supermarket-style queues outside our tube and rail stations as we set off on our daunting commutes? Have we got our surgical face masks and disposable gloves at the ready?
A return to office life may become reality again before too long, but we all know it won’t be a return to normality as we knew it. That may not be the way of it for a very long time. Until there is a reliable antidote to this dreaded virus, how could it be any other way?
There is understandably a collective will to get back to some sort of version of how we were just a few short months ago, but we all know that the pre-lockdown scrum on trains, tubes and buses we endured as part of the whole going-to-work deal cannot simply be resumed without potentially catastrophic consequences. Covid-19 may be being contained to a degree, but there is nothing to stop it spreading like wildfire once more if normal human contact is scaled up again.
So how on earth can safe trips to work become a thing? Social distancing will just not be possible on any mode of public transport. A 2m gap would cut passenger capacity to around a fifth, and yet we know that in rush hour, we are normally cheek-by-jowl in carriages rammed at 200 per cent capacity.
Only if work-from-home levels remain very high, the process will surely not be feasible, even if we can somehow spread out commuting times – and how would you begin to organise that, by the way? Timed tickets to use a train would be an added headache for all concerned, if not impractical.
A typical London journey to work of, say, an hour and a quarter, would probably take twice as long because of the added wait to board a bus or train. After that, you have the fun of repeating the exercise to get home.
Then there is the joy of what awaits in the office itself. It does not seem practical for a full complement of staff to be in at any one time, with kitchens, loos, lifts and narrow corridors to negotiate after the crowded pavements outside – making total segregation all-but impossible. Partitioning screens, one-way arrows on the floor, and constant deep clean activity, PPE (If you can get it) and PPE-disposal all become tedious factors in the equation. Are there added risks in sourcing lunches and brewing up during the day too?
Zoom and Team meetings may have their limitations and do not replicate the impact of face-to-face conflabs, but compared to the added stress the trip to work will entail for most people, it will seem a very attractive alternative.
As a not-inconsiderable side-issue, where do companies legally stand if staff ‘conscientiously object’ to travelling to the office and refuse on the grounds of safety? Workers won’t want to put their own households at greater risk of catching coronavirus and may feel that playing Russian Roulette with their commute is a game they are simply not prepared to put up with. What then? It’s a thorny issue which the office world is going to have to confront.
Government advice is for workers to contact health and safety if they feel they are being made to work in unreasonable or risky locations.
Of course, the longer the WFH culture takes hold, the more likely we are to change our habits forever in the long term. Many more businesses may decide a version of it is the way forward, not just in terms of avoiding illness, but also costs. Less outlay on transport and the closure of premises could be a pathway to saving fortunes.
Maybe for the owners of commercial properties, this will be the Armageddon which out-of-town shopping centres and greater parking restrictions have proved to be for so many high street shops.
Sorting the minefield of logistics which Back To Work entails will be one thing, but we have not yet begun to work out how all this might impact on mental health. Is the extra toil and stress of the commute going to lead to more sick days? Is it going to be ultimately less ruinous to well-being and man hours than the isolation and potential loneliness of WFH?
Like everything else during these past few, surreal months, we are on a learning curve, starting from ground zero. And we may have to continue making it up as we go along for a good while yet…