In a television broadcast on Tuesday night, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that, in England, people should work from home wherever possible; the closure of pubs, restaurants and other hospitality venues at 10pm; and further restrictions on social gatherings. With similar – and sometimes stricter – measures being imposed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Mr Boris warned the restrictions could last six months and that government “must reserve the right to go further” if Covid-19 cases continued to rise.Roger Barker, director of policy at the Institute of Directors (IoD), said the new measures would inevitably put the brakes on the economic recovery somewhat “but businesses will hope they prevent stricter measures down the road”.He said the onus was now on government to set out the next phase of its support for business. “The spread of the virus isn’t wholly predictable, but the back and forth on (working from) offices will cause frustration. Business leaders are eager for the government to focus on the foundations, issues like childcare, public transport, and getting the testing system firing on all cylinders.”The IoD recommended that support for businesses in the months ahead should include extending emergency business interruption loan schemes, reducing employment costs by cutting employers’ National Insurance contributions, adjusting the existing furlough scheme to support businesses directly impacted by lockdown measures, and providing tax incentives to support SMEs to adopt digital practices and technology.Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), agreed that businesses understood the need for further restrictions to tackle the rising number of coronavirus cases.“But,” he warned, “these measures will impact business and consumer confidence at a delicate time for the economy.“Businesses, their employees and customers need to see a clear road map for the existing restrictions and those that may be introduced in the future. This must include transparent trigger points, and clarity about the support available to protect jobs and livelihoods.“The government should waste no time in setting out a comprehensive support package for firms forced to close or reduce capacity through no fault of their own.”Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said it was right for the government to prioritise bringing infections under control with the introduction of new restrictions, rather than with a total lockdown.“But,” she added, “there can be no avoiding the crushing blow new measures bring for thousands of firms, particularly in city centres and for our hospitality sector employing over four million people. It is vital that all announcements of restrictions go hand in hand with clarity on the business support that protects jobs. “A clear timetable is welcome, but six months will come as a shock to many. Every possible step should now be taken to bring that horizon forward. This requires a turbo-charged testing regime to help control the virus quickly.”Dame Carolyn pointed out over the summer the government had been encouraging a return to the workplace but that this had now changed with people once again being advised to work from home.“While action is necessary, it comes at a serious price,” she said. “Remote working has brought real benefits to people and businesses, but we also lose a lot from missed human connections in the workplace. “Businesses have bent over backwards to make their workplaces Covid-secure and are ready to welcome staff back as soon as allowed.”In fact, latest research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has found that the shift to home because of the pandemic has proved a positive experience for many employers.Some 61 per cent reported an improvement in people’s improved work-life balance, 43 per cent said it had resulted in enhanced employee collaboration and 38 per cent found more focus by staff.Overall, 28 per cent of employers reported that the increase in home working had boosted productivity, with an identical percentage reporting a decrease.However, the research also highlighted the challenges of managing home workers with employers highlighting reduced staff mental wellbeing, problems with staff interaction and difficulties with line managing and monitoring home workers.Peter Cheese, CIPD chief executive, said: “The step-change shift to home working to adapt to lockdowns has taught us all a lot about how we can be flexible in ways of working in the future. This should be a catalyst to change long held paradigms and beliefs about work for the benefit of many.“Employers have learnt that, if supported and managed properly, home working can be as productive and innovative as office working and we can give more opportunity for people to benefit from better work-life balance. This can also help with inclusion and how we can create positive work opportunities across our economies.”Michael Chalmers, managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at the transformation consultancy Contino, added that the latest guidelines on working from home suggested remote working was here for the foreseeable future.“Those who have prioritised digital transformation before or during the last six months will have benefited from the flexible nature of the cloud, allowing them to maintain business as usual. Those that haven’t, however, will be faced with bigger challenges to overcome if they don’t act now,” he said.“As we enter the next phase, all organisations need to recognise that a move away from legacy infrastructure and an investment in technologies such as cloud, data and security will allow their businesses to transform much faster – something that will be crucial in effectively navigating another period of change and disruption.”
Read more news and views from David Sapsted.
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