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Employment

Plans to work from home forever may create high street ‘haves and have nots’

City centre rethink required to make use of office space and boost local high streets say campaigners in response to government flexible working plan

Westminster government plans to see working from home maintained beyond the pandemic risk creating inequality between town and city centres across the country, according to high street supporters.

The government is planning to introduce law changes to introduce a “default right to work from home”, according to reports across the media on Thursday. A Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy spokesperson told The Big Issue there are no plans to “make working from home permanent or introduce a legal right to work from home”.

But the government has committed to “consulting for the longer term on making flexible working the default unless employers have good reasons not to”.

However, Covid-19’s impact on office working – which has seen city centre offices deserted since March 2020 – looks set to have a long-term effect with work from home guidance still in place in England, Scotland and Wales.

If employers want to get the best, most diverse people on their team, going back to bad old inflexible habits is a big no

That must trigger a rethink in how to use city spaces, Alex Schlagman, founding partner at SaveTheHighStreet.org told the Big Issue.

“There are going to be haves and have nots. There will be less people commuting to cities, more people working from home and more people in regional and suburban high streets from a footfall point of view,” said Alex.

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“When people are not encouraged to come to work five days a week in the city centre, they are going to spend more time locally and as a result we need to create high streets outside of city centres that serve the needs of that local community.

“We need to capitalise on the fact that more people are going to be around during the week and for city centres we need to really reimagine these spaces and figure out how we make better use of the office space that is not being utilised to create a real attraction for people to visit, spend money and time in city centres.”

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More than a third of workers worked from home in 2020, almost 10 per cent higher than in 2019, according to Office for National Statistics homeworking figures.

A longer-term shift towards flexible working is also set to impact on the UK’s 13 million working parents who have spent the pandemic juggling work life alongside homeschooling and childcare.

Work-life balance charity Working Families published a YouGov poll on Thursday that revealed half of the 4,357 parents quizzed are concerned that a return to less flexible working will have a negative effect on their family life.

The charity has welcomed the government’s consultation plans after the poll also revealed three-quarters of parents wanted ministers to intervene to create more flexible jobs. A further 84 per cent of working parents urged employers to introduce more roles that deviate from the standard nine-to-five.

“It’s really positive to see the government is looking at ways to help more people work flexibly after the pandemic,” said Simon Kelleher, head of policy at Working Families. 

“Not all roles can be done from home: but every role can have flexibility built into it, whether that’s the ability to flex hours, job share or work part time. Real flexibility happens when employers design jobs with flex built in from the start – focusing on what that person delivers rather than where or when they do the work.”

Working Families has urged the UK government to use upcoming changes to employment law in 2022 to introduce flexibility to workplaces and take action against insecure employment practices.

Kelleher added: “If employers want to get the best, most diverse people on their team, going back to bad old inflexible habits is a big no.”

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