Bosses blast government for delay to crucial 'working safely' guidance

Bosses blast government for STILL not publishing crucial ‘working safely’ guidance with only five days to go until Freedom Day amid dismay at PM’s ‘gradual’ back to office message

  • Business leaders criticise Ministers for ‘mixed messages’ over returning to office from next Monday
  • Long-standing official ‘work from home’ order will be scrapped on Freedom Day in just five days’ time 
  • Vodafone, Santander and Amazon say there will be no big return to UK offices until at least September
  • Bosses frustrated after Department for Business delayed release of guidance about offices reopening
  • Companies are even worried that they could face legal challenges if there is a Covid-19 outbreak at work
  • Government is now shifting responsibility onto businesses by making wearing of face masks voluntary

Business leaders criticised the Government today for ‘mixed messages’ over returning to the office ahead of the long-standing official ‘work from home’ order being scrapped on Freedom Day in just five days’ time.

Major companies such as Vodafone, Santander and Amazon told MailOnline there will be no big return to UK offices until at least September, while NatWest said only a ‘small number’ would be coming back in from Monday.

And bosses were left frustrated after the Department for Business delayed the release of new documents about offices reopening, which had been expected yesterday, amid fears that the guidance has so far been unclear.

Companies are even worried that they could face legal challenges if there is a Covid-19 outbreak at work – with the Government shifting responsibility onto businesses by making the wearing of face masks voluntary.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged people not to rush back to the office, saying he did not expect the whole country to return on Monday. Guidance issued so far states: ‘Whilst government is no longer instructing people to work from home if they can, government would expect and recommend a gradual return over the summer.’

But Roger Barker, policy director at the Institute of Directors, said there was ‘genuine concern about what the implications will be in terms of liability and legal responsibility for employees and customers’.

VODAFONE: Vodafone told MailOnline that the company intends to welcome its UK office-based teams back from September

AMAZON: The US firm, whose London offices are pictured, is not implementing changes to working guidance next week

LONDON STOCK EXCHANGE: The LSE said it is not implementing any changes to its Covid-19 guidance from next Monday

SANTANDER: The bank’s current working from home arrangements for non-branch roles will not change before September 6

NATIONWIDE: The building society told MailOnline that just 6 per cent of its staff want to work in an office full time

He told MailOnline: ‘Businesses across the country will welcome the opportunity to begin to return to relative normality from next week. 

‘However, there has been real frustration about the mixed messages that they have been receiving from the Government, and we are calling for a focus on rebuilding trust and confidence through clear and unambiguous guidance.

What have businesses in Britain said about returning to the office? 

Amazon – Amazon is not implementing any changes to its working guidance from next Monday, although it does have return to office guidance for corporate employees which is set to come in from September. This states that its new baseline will be three days a week in the office, leaving flexibility to work remotely up to two days a week. Separately, corporate employees will have the choice to work up to four weeks per year fully remote from a domestic location, without the expectation that they will commute into an office during that time.

Vodafone – A Vodafone spokesman told MailOnline that the company intends to welcome its UK office-based teams back from September. She added: We will be taking a flexible approach, with a combination of home-working and time together in offices. We aim to work in a way which offers the best of both virtual and office-based working. The extent of virtual working will vary by role, and our offices will evolve to become places where we can come together when needed for connection, collaboration and creation. Our priority, of course, is to keep everyone safe, and we’ll adapt our plans if we need to as circumstances change.’

NatWest – The bank told MailOnline it will ‘be inviting a small number of colleagues in England to return to the office’ from next Monday, and will ‘encourage colleagues in England to continue wearing masks in our buildings and branches’. It will also ‘maintain social distancing measures in our buildings and branches for colleagues at this time’. A NatWest Group spokesman said: ‘Our current plan is to start to implement a phased return to the workplace, with our priority workers returning from 19 July, and to adapt to our new ways of working over the summer, with the majority of UK staff expected to be back in the office in September. This is dependent on government and public health advice, across the different jurisdictions in which we operate which we will continue to monitor closely.’ The bank’s ‘priority workers’ are defined as ‘those who are key workers, in regulated roles, where there is a client need, and people who need to work in the office for wellbeing reasons’. It added: ‘Under our new ways of working framework, we expect around 87 per cent of our colleagues to adopt a hybrid working pattern.’

London Stock Exchange – The LSE said it is not implementing any changes to its Covid-19 guidance from next Monday, although it does expect more people to return to its UK offices from September. 

Santander – The bank has decided that its current working from home arrangements for non-branch roles will not change before September 6, but added: ‘There will be more opportunities for colleagues to work from an office as restrictions are eased across the UK.’ It is planning for a phased return in two months’ time and will be maintaining safety measures such as hand sanitiser and temperature scanning. 

Goldman Sachs – The company has not sent any new communication to staff since a memo at the start of May, in which the company said 60 per cent of its London staff had been into the office at least once in the previous month. Its offices at Plumtree Court have been open throughout the pandemic and since the lockdown has been lifted, it has seen a gradual uptick in numbers of staff returning. Now, the company is at roughly 40 to 45 per cent staff back in its London office, which works out at about 2,300 employees. It has also asked staff for their vaccination status. 

British American Tobacco – A BAT spokesman told MailOnline: ‘Our number one priority continues to be to safeguard the health and wellbeing of our employees and we are following UK Government workplace guidelines. Once the Health and Safety Executive has released its updated COVID secure workplace guidance, we will take some time to understand what is needed to ensure a safe return to site.’ 

Aviva  – The insurance company told MailOnline that they ‘look forward to welcoming our colleagues back into our offices’, adding: ‘We expect to see more of our people returning and will encourage them to remain aware of what they can do to reduce the risk of the virus spreading. Our focus continues to be on the safety and wellbeing of our people, customers and communities.’ The company also said that the ‘vast majority of people at Aviva want to work flexibly in future’. It continued: ‘Our people need to work in ways that deliver the best outcomes for our business and our customers. That will involve some time in an office for most people, for example for team meetings and when work benefits from face-to-face collaboration. This will vary by role and we’re supporting leaders to help their teams navigate this transition to smart working. We’re reshaping our office space to reflect this, with more areas for breakouts and collaboration and less space dedicated to rows of desks.’ 

Nationwide – The building society said that throughout the pandemic, it has kept its offices open for those that needed to come in. A spokesman told MailOnline: ‘N ow that the message from the government has changed, we will slowly open more space and continue to monitor the guidelines. Back in March we announced our Work Anywhere approach that gives colleagues the flexibility to work in a way that’s best for them. We know that just 6 per cent of colleagues want to work in an office full time and we’ll continue to embrace this new way of working to ensure it works for both Nationwide and our colleagues.’ The company added that it will ‘monitor and review colleague feedback, office capacity and the guidance ensuring that people are given enough space and are able to respect peoples choices and ensure colleagues feel comfortable’. The spokesman also said: ‘Colleagues in our offices can wear face coverings if they choose to.’

IAG – A spokesman told MailOnline: ‘We’re planning for a phased return to the office in the coming months’. 

 

‘The latest guidance has shifted the responsibility from the Government to businesses by removing mandatory rules on things like face masks and replacing them with voluntary recommendations.

‘Whilst it is right that companies should be allowed to take decisions based on their own unique circumstances, it is vital that government provides businesses with best practice in developing their own policies.

‘There is genuine concern about what the implications will be in terms of liability and legal responsibility for employees and customers. Consumer-facing businesses, in particular, are worrying about how they enforce the rules that they put in place to ensure they protect their staff and customers.’

He also pointed out that further clarity was needed over the wearing of face masks on public transport, saying it would be ‘entirely sensible’ to keep this mandatory, as Mayor Sadiq Khan has now done on Transport for London services from next Monday. 

This is in contrast to rail operators outside of the capital in England who will make wearing face masks voluntary.

MailOnline has spoken to a series of firms planning for a return to the office, with a Vodafone spokesman saying that the company intends to welcome its UK office-based teams back from September.

She added: We will be taking a flexible approach, with a combination of home-working and time together in offices. We aim to work in a way which offers the best of both virtual and office-based working.

‘The extent of virtual working will vary by role, and our offices will evolve to become places where we can come together when needed for connection, collaboration and creation. Our priority, of course, is to keep everyone safe, and we’ll adapt our plans if we need to as circumstances change.’

Meanwhile Amazon said it is not implementing any changes to its working guidance from next Monday, although it does have return to office guidance for corporate employees which is set to come in from September.

This states that its new baseline will be three days a week in the office, leaving flexibility to work remotely up to two days a week. Separately, corporate employees will have the choice to work up to four weeks per year fully remote from a domestic location, without the expectation that they will commute into an office during that time.

Santander has decided that its current working from home arrangements for non-branch roles will not change before September 6, but added: ‘There will be more opportunities for colleagues to work from an office as restrictions are eased across the UK.’

It is planning for a phased return in two months’ time and will be maintaining safety measures such as hand sanitiser and temperature scanning.

The London Stock Exchange said it is not implementing any changes to its Covid-19 guidance from next Monday, although it does expect more people to return to its UK offices from September.

And a spokesman for International Airlines Group (IAG), the parent company of British Airways, told MailOnline: ‘We’re planning for a phased return to the office in the coming months’.

The building society Nationwide said that throughout the pandemic, it has kept its offices open for those that needed to come in.

A spokesman told MailOnline: ‘Now that the message from the government has changed, we will slowly open more space and continue to monitor the guidelines. Back in March we announced our Work Anywhere approach that gives colleagues the flexibility to work in a way that’s best for them.

‘We know that just 6 per cent of colleagues want to work in an office full time and we’ll continue to embrace this new way of working to ensure it works for both Nationwide and our colleagues.’

The company added that it will ‘monitor and review colleague feedback, office capacity and the guidance ensuring that people are given enough space and are able to respect peoples choices and ensure colleagues feel comfortable’. The spokesman also said: ‘Colleagues in our offices can wear face coverings if they choose to.’

Goldman Sachs has not sent any new communication to staff since a memo at the start of May, in which the company said 60 per cent of its London staff had been into the office at least once in the previous month.

Its offices at Plumtree Court have been open throughout the pandemic and since the lockdown has been lifted, it has seen a gradual uptick in numbers of staff returning.

Now, the company is at roughly 40 to 45 per cent staff back in its London office, which works out at about 2,300 employees. It has also asked staff for their vaccination status.

Meanwhile NatWest told MailOnline it will ‘be inviting a small number of colleagues in England to return to the office’ from next Monday, and will ‘encourage colleagues in England to continue wearing masks in our buildings and branches’.

It will also ‘maintain social distancing measures in our buildings and branches for colleagues at this time’.

A NatWest Group spokesman said: ‘ Our current plan is to start to implement a phased return to the workplace, with our priority workers returning from 19 July, and to adapt to our new ways of working over the summer, with the majority of UK staff expected to be back in the office in September.

‘This is dependent on government and public health advice, across the different jurisdictions in which we operate which we will continue to monitor closely.’

The bank’s ‘priority workers’ are defined as ‘those who are key workers, in regulated roles, where there is a client need, and people who need to work in the office for wellbeing reasons’. It added: ‘Under our new ways of working framework, we expect around 87 per cent of our colleagues to adopt a hybrid working pattern.’

NATWEST: The bank will ‘be inviting a small number of colleagues in England to return to the office’ from next Monday

BRITISH AMERICAN TOBACCO: The company is waiting for the Health and Safety Executive to release new office guidance

INTERNATIONAL AIRLINES GROUP: BA’s parent company is ‘planning for a phased return to the office in the coming months’

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (pictured at Downing Street on Monday) has urged people not to rush back to the office

Insurance company Aviva told MailOnline that they ‘ look forward to welcoming our colleagues back into our offices’, adding: ‘We expect to see more of our people returning and will encourage them to remain aware of what they can do to reduce the risk of the virus spreading. Our focus continues to be on the safety and wellbeing of our people, customers and communities.’

The company also said that the ‘vast majority of people at Aviva want to work flexibly in future’. It continued: ‘Our people need to work in ways that deliver the best outcomes for our business and our customers.

 

‘That will involve some time in an office for most people, for example for team meetings and when work benefits from face-to-face collaboration.

‘This will vary by role and we’re supporting leaders to help their teams navigate this transition to smart working. We’re reshaping our office space to reflect this, with more areas for breakouts and collaboration and less space dedicated to rows of desks.’

British American Tobacco is waiting on further official guidance, with a spokesman telling MailOnline: ‘Our number one priority continues to be to safeguard the health and wellbeing of our employees and we are following UK Government workplace guidelines.

‘Once the Health and Safety Executive has released its updated COVID secure workplace guidance, we will take some time to understand what is needed to ensure a safe return to site.’

Matthew Fell, chief UK policy director for the Confederation of British Industry, said: ‘With the economy in England fully reopen soon, we’re now entering a brand-new phase to the pandemic: living with the virus.

‘The Government has rightly set out the terms of how we do this in a way that is practical, pragmatic and easy to follow. Instilling a sense of confidence in the plan for businesses and the public will be critical to success.

‘It makes sense that the order to work from home if possible is removed at this stage. The reality is that many firms are well-advanced in their plans and are proceeding with hybrid working models, just as the Government advises. It’s up to employers to engage positively with their staff to shape the unique new way of working every business needs to consider.’

Sources at the Department for Business told MailOnline this morning that the updated ‘safer workplace guidance’ would be published ‘shortly’.

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