Workers will not be told by ministers that they should return to their offices when the final phase of lockdown restrictions are expected to be lifted next month, government sources have told the Guardian.
In a significant change of approach from last summer, the government is minded to let companies make their own decisions – a strategy that could lead to conflict and confusion among staff.
Boris Johnson was accused of rushing too quickly to get quiet city centres back to pre-pandemic levels when restrictions were lifted last July.
His former closest adviser, Dominic Cummings, said last month that the prime minister’s “main concern” was prioritising helping the economy recover quickly at the expense of Covid cases rising again.
But Johnson is said to favour a more cautious approach in the run-up to the final stage of his roadmap out of lockdown for England, pushed back from 21 June to 19 July.
Current guidance that tells people to work from home where possible is likely to be changed to a more agnostic approach.
One government source explained there had been a shift in thinking. “The message we are hearing from business is not demanding a return, there is no pressure from that direction,” they said.
“The pandemic has made everyone reappraise how they balance their lives. The flexible working consultation actually pre-dates the pandemic – it’s about how people prioritise their different responsibilities including caring and children.
“It’s a train that has been in motion for a long time. But I think this past year has made everyone see that presenteeism isn’t always necessary.”
A second government source said Johnson was likely to “take a step away” from prescribing where people should work at the end of the roadmap, admitting: “I don’t think we are going to be prescriptive either way – [we will] let people make their own decisions.”
Another Whitehall insider said there was a general feeling that the headlines of last summer had been damaging and not entirely representative of the government’s position.
“The government’s never told anyone where to work – apart from when there has been a national health emergency,” they said.
“Once the advice to work from home lifts, there’s an argument to say it shouldn’t be something the government takes a view on.”
Some Whitehall workers are also expecting to spend significantly less time in the office than they did pre-pandemic.
One major department has told staff they will be able to spend only 60% of their time in the office from 19 July.
That has led to resentment among some workers, who feel the savings will not have been fairly re-invested in equipment to let them work from home or in a salary boost so they can afford to live in properties more suited to home-working, with a dedicated home office as opposed to having to work in a bedroom or shared spaces such as a living room.
Meanwhile, a consultation on flexible working promised by the Conservatives in their 2019 manifesto will report this year and will probably recommend making flexible working the default – unless employers have a good reason not to.
But if the decision about where people should work this summer is left up to employers or staff, there will probably be a significant tussle as to who should have the final say.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said the default should be that “businesses control where work is done” and that while firms will “need to talk with workers about this … it can’t be unduly onerous to do so”.
Meanwhile trade unions are pushing for employees to be given a right to flexible working conditions – including doing their job from home.
Mike Clancy, general secretary of the Prospect union, has been pushing for a “right to disconnect” – to ensure people working from home cannot be asked to work significantly more.
He said a right to flexible working should not just include where work is conducted, but also start and finish times.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, also said there should not be “one-sided flexibility” for employers to let them “dictate terms to their workers”.
Jo Mackie, an employment lawyer at Slater Gordon, told the Guardian that workplaces were going to have some people who did not want to go back – possibly for legitimate reasons such as childcare or because they were living with someone at serious risk of Covid who cannot be vaccinated.
Although millions of people have been stuck working from home for the past year and may be fearful of returning to an office, she said steps such as ensuring mask-wearing, social distancing between desks and use of hand sanitiser would help: “It’s a genuine worry but it’s a worry that you can reasonably take care of.”
It is unlikely the government will legislate to force people to go back to work, Mackie said, suggesting instead that whatever advice is issued next month, employers should focus on communicating with staff to hear their concerns and follow common sense.
Downing Street insisted this week that no final decision had been taken on changing the work from guidance and that there would be no new legal right to work from home.
A spokesperson for the Business, Energy, Skills and Innovation department said: “We are wholeheartedly committed to protecting and enhancing workers’ rights and have already pledged to consult on making flexible working the default unless employers have good reason not to.
“Flexible working is about much more than working from home, and is crucial to opening up employment opportunities to people regardless of their gender, age, disability or location.”