It is time to ask people to think about returning to the office. But let’s do it carefully and with support, not threats

This has been an August like no other in Greater Manchester.

Usually our streets are a sea of colour and people, with events like Manchester Pride and the return of the new football season.

But this summer they have been stalked by a silent foe keeping the crowds away.

I know August has been difficult for everyone here.

I want to thank the vast majority who have done the right thing and followed the rules around social gatherings in the home.

Thanks to your sacrifices, cases have begun to fall and, while we need to remain vigilant, we start September in a better position.

And with a new term comes the need for a new mindset.

We can’t live in fear of this virus and hide away. We do need to return to school and work. But doing that safely means all of us - me included - getting more disciplined in the way we live alongside Covid.

One of the reasons we’ve seen localised spikes across the country is because we came out of lockdown too early and with the wrong messaging.

We went abruptly from “stay at home” to get yourself back down the pub.

The Government failed to prepare people for the difficult reality of living with this virus in our midst. It’s harder than we were led to believe. We were lulled into a false sense of security. There was too much ambivalence about wearing masks and face coverings.

We have now reached another pivotal moment with the return of schools and offices. And I’m worried that the messaging is being messed up again.

I had my head in my hands last Friday when I saw the headline: “Go back to work or risk losing your job”.

I agree with the Government that it’s important for people to begin to return to the office to support our city and town centres. But ordering people back and stoking up the fear factor is the wrong way to go about it.

Apart from the extra anxiety it may cause to those already worried about redundancy, it risks an unplanned rush back to work for which we don’t have capacity on public transport. If our trams and buses end up overcrowded and unsafe, it won’t build the confidence on which any recovery will have to be based.

So, in Greater Manchester, we will be taking a different approach.

Starting this week, I will be leading the call for a safety-led, voluntary return to the office for those ready to do so.

Having spent the last five months working from home, I will return to the office myself for the first time in five months and, in so doing, hopefully set a lead others might follow.

It’s important because we all need to play our part in helping our city recover.

I expect to be joined by around 30% of the staff of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority - the safe capacity given the need for distancing between desks.

We’ve been surveying staff to identify those ready to return or with a particular need to do so because of their home circumstances and rostering staff so that everyone who wants to come back can do so.

All this easily fills up the available capacity meaning, contrary to the Government’s clumsy messaging, there’s no need to put pressure on anyone, especially those who have been shielding.

In fact, we want to make this a moment when we take pressure off people and improve their work-life balance. Staff will be encouraged to use flexibility over the start and end time to the working day rather than returning to the traditional 9-to-5 regime. This is important as it will help relieve peak-time pressure on the transport system.

This is a template for a safe, managed return to the office. Working with local business organisations, we will be promoting it across the city-region and asking others to adopt something similar.

Where I agree with the Government is with their concern for city centres. They are right to challenge organisations abandoning offices for the foreseeable future.

Cities are the engines of our economy. It is crucial that we bring them back to life and support businesses based there. But we are more likely to succeed if we do it in a gradual, careful, positive way.

There will be some who’ll no doubt say this is irresponsible given the challenges that Greater Manchester is still experiencing with the virus. Others will claim it is contradictory, given the restrictions on home gatherings still in place.

I don’t believe it is. The office is a more regulated environment than the home and it is our hope that the measures will be lifted everywhere soon.

That said, it’s true that we will need to continue to be vigilant and cautious about social gatherings, particularly at home. We can’t rule out more local restrictions at some point. But nor can we let this virus rule our lives.

The only answer, then, is to get better at living with it.

That means being more disciplined than we have been to date about distancing and the wearing of masks and face coverings. It’s been too hit-and-miss up to now.

Yes, we need to support bars, restaurants and shops before and after work. But, in return, we need a stronger, safety-first culture than we’ve seen in some so far.

And we all need to make changes to how and when we travel.

I realise it falls to me to lead by example and, recognising that cycling is the safest way to travel from an infection point of view and also helps leave space on public transport for those who most need it, I am going to try to go all the way to work on two wheels.

That end-of-summer-back-to-school feeling is never a good one but is probably more daunting this year than ever.

So there is only one thing for it - let’s embrace the moment we are in and use it to make positive changes to our lives. The old normal isn’t coming back any time soon. And, let’s be honest, it wasn’t that great any way.

A difficult few months lie ahead, no doubt. But, if we approach the challenge head on, we’ll get through it and soon find ourselves in the better times that await us on the other side.


Article Published: 31/08/2020 15:52 PM