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UK workers on returning to the office: ‘No point if I end up doing video calls’

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Workers in the UK have gradually been returning to offices in recent weeks, after the lifting of coronavirus restrictions. While many firms have adopted a flexible arrangement that combines remote and office work each week, many others have called their employees back full time.

For some, it is a welcome return to normality, but others have raised concerns about their health and working conditions.

‘It’s given me a start and finish to the working day’

View image in fullscreenDebbie Ryle in her office. Photograph: Guardian Community

Debbie Ryle, 45, who works in a management role at a further education college in London, has enjoyed the renewed structure of work in the office after returning two weeks ago. “It’s given me a proper start and finish to the working day, and I prefer to maintain that boundary,” she said. “When I get home, I don’t look at my work emails outside of working hours any more, so I’ve noticed a real improvement in my mental health as a result. It’s wonderful to see colleagues again.”

Ryle does not consider her commute of at least 40 minutes to various education centres across London to be a downside, either. “As a parent, I don’t get much ‘me time’. I love using the daily commute to listen to podcasts and message my friends.”

Covid remains a “nagging concern”, though. “The last two weeks have been quiet on public transport, but I’ve noticed there are more people returning to the city. The trains and buses are getting busier and not everyone wears a mask. But I think I’ve got over the fear of catching it now that I’m fully vaccinated.”

‘I ended up doing video calls from the office anyway’

View image in fullscreenRobin Stephenson. Photograph: Guardian Community

Like Ryle, Robin Stephenson, 48, a software architect for a cancer charity, has been glad to see colleagues again after returning to his office in London once a week. Before the pandemic, there were 1,500 people in his office on a normal working day; now there are fewer than 100.

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“I recently met a colleague who I had never met face to face despite having worked with them via Microsoft Teams for a year. It was nice to be back, but only three of our team made it into the building, so we used a conference room and Teams anyway.”

He does not intend to go to the office often, since his company has formally committed to a “hybrid” working arrangement. “I won’t come in regularly until there is a critical mass of people here. There’s no point in leaving the house if I end up doing video calls anyway.”

Stephenson lives a 10-minute bike ride away from work, but is concerned about other members of his team becoming isolated during this period of transition. “There’s the risk of an ‘us and them’ situation, where some people return to the office and have more contact with senior leadership or fortuitous meetings with other coworkers than people who are still working from home, who might feel excluded. There could be a tension there.”

‘I have no idea what some of my colleagues look like’

Andy, 45, who works for a railway infrastructure company, has voluntarily commuted to his office in York since January. “It felt claustrophobic working remotely, even being in a reasonably sized house with a garden and access to parks,” he said. “I missed being out and about.”

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Since Covid restrictions were lifted, however, most of his colleagues have avoided the office. “I am one of only a few at the company who don’t like working from home. There is still a large number of people working remotely, so the office resembles a call centre, with everyone here still on video calls.”

While these calls bring their own efficiencies, he is concerned about a lack of face-to-face meetings. “There is less social interaction now and any team ethos is non-existent,” he said. “Sometimes the formalities between employees haven’t been broken down because they’ve not seen each other in person. I have no idea what some of my colleagues look like. A lot of people are using audio only in meetings.

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“There are trainees who have spent their entire time in the garage or bedroom on their laptop. I struggle to understand how someone could develop in that environment.”

It will take a long time yet for workers at the company to adjust, he said. “There’s a general fear factor when people come in now. I recently went into the kitchen and someone hung back at the other side of the room until I went away. Overcoming that fear is going to take a while.”

‘One good thing to come out of the pandemic was flexible working’

For others, the option to work from home has become non-negotiable. Zak, 27, a copywriter from Southport, said that during the pandemic, he had grown to appreciate the flexibility of his schedule, the time and money saved on his commute, and getting more sleep.

He recently resigned from his Manchester-based role, which he had started in July, after his company announced that most of its employees would no longer be allowed to work remotely after the middle of August. “One of the only good things to come out of the pandemic was flexible working and that was put to bed. The company emailed everyone with a rationale based on [the chancellor] Rishi Sunak’s ‘work in the office to get on’ rhetoric. It came off as tone deaf,” he said.

“I took my job after being told that flexible working would be possible and I could come to the office once or twice a week and work remotely the rest of the week. But this was verbally agreed, not contractually binding, as I later discovered,” he said. “This arrangement was key to my taking the job, as my commute is a three-hour round trip by train. That’s fine once or twice a week, but not five days.”

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He has accepted a new role at a different company “offering full flexibility and, hopefully, more democratic processes”.

‘I book my desk in advance’

View image in fullscreenParina Patel. Photograph: Guardian Community

In Manchester, Parina Patel, 35, a chartered engineer at a building consultancy firm, enjoys the new flexibility of her hybrid schedule as she now travels to the office once or twice a week. “Working from home is really good for parents. I can fit in other commitments, such as nursery drop-offs,” she said. “I’ve also enjoyed doing detailed work at home without any distractions.”

But her office still has its uses. “The building is a little bit different now there are limits on the number of people and you have to book a desk in advance. It’s been nice to have a change of scenery and catch up with colleagues. If I want to use a bigger screen, or talk to a certain colleague, or look at some drawings, I like having that option. And if I want to write a report, I can do that at home. It’s just a case of planning my week.”

Socialising is still limited at the office, however, with staff events still on hold. “We used to have a quiz night and things like yoga, and I don’t know if they’ll come back. It probably wouldn’t make sense to ask people to come in specifically to do yoga in the meeting room.”

For now, Parina is satisfied with her new schedule. “Before the pandemic I knew I could do my job from anywhere, and always wondered why I couldn’t.”