Will ‘freedom day’ imprison businesses in a governance nightmare?

By Andrew Adie

Happy Freedom Day. Boris Johnson is spending today in isolation, along with the Chancellor (after an incredibly quick U-turn yesterday) and with more than a million others across the UK. Nevertheless, the government has maintained that today represents an ‘irreversible’ return to normality, with the removal of the remaining pandemic restrictions in England.

While some will be enjoying the return of freedoms after nearly 18 months of legal requirements on social distancing, venue closures, gatherings and mask wearing (and plenty of people are enjoying themselves, as evidenced here), others will be far more anxious about the coming days and weeks. Cases are potentially surging towards 100,000 a day and, according to analysis by The Guardian, up to 10 million people could be self-isolating this summer.

For many businesses and individuals, the net effect of ‘freedom day’ is the shifting of responsibilities away from the government and onto them. With the lifting of restrictions taking place at a time of rising cases, many business and employers now face a dilemma about their plans to return staff to their workplaces.

Staff and employers are living in fear of the ping from the NHS test and trace app yet for employers they also face the Hobsons Choice of the app being advisory. If staff test negative for Covid, are double-jabbed and have no symptoms should they therefore be encouraged to work from home or return to the office? With no compulsion then choice is personal and corporate.

Given that the UK faces huge labour shortages that will likely get worse over the summer then the temptation will be high for employers to say ‘yes’ staff should return. Yet, imagine the headlines? Company X forces staff back to work after being pinged by the NHS test and trace app. It’s a corporate reputation nightmare. The short term pain, financial loss and disruption of having to accept that staff with no symptoms and a negative test will still be isolating will seem a small price on that measurement.

Corporates also face another governance nightmare post Freedom Day. They’re being urged to get staff back into the workplace yet they also have a duty of care, and a legal responsibility, to safeguard their staff and visitors, some of whom may have underlying heath issues that may not be obvious and which the individuals may choose not to disclose.

They have a duty to shareholders, their staff, their customers and the economy to try and get services back to normal. Yet they also have a duty to their teams, to society and to the NHS to try and help contain the virus through social distancing, respecting advisory pings from The App and in trying to ‘do the right thing’. One wrong step and there are negative headlines and social media storms in all directions.

With new cases of Covid 19 already at more than 30,000 over a seven day average corporates also can’t afford to sit back and ponder how they react.

While the Government has forged ahead with re-opening (while also urging personal responsibility and caution) the responsibility for defining what that means lies with corporate UK and with public sector bodies that have to implement these decisions on the ground.

London mayor Sadiq Khan has made headlines by declaring that mask-wearing will remain compulsory on Transport for London services. Others may well feel compelled to follow that lead. Yet that line of responsibility also attracts furious opposition in other quarters and for corporates it results in a governance and a policing nightmare.

Some staff and visitors are likely to feel deeply uncomfortable coming into the office and insist on universal mask wearing and social distancing. Others will be far more relaxed, some will be strident in their belief that masks offer no protection and that we have to use a combination of vaccines, herd immunity and hygiene standards to live with a virus that isn’t going to go away.

You can’t balance those viewpoints. You are either in the office or not; you wear masks or you don’t; you adhere to social distancing or not. It also has to be universal as experience shows us that a hybrid solution, adhered to by some but not all, results in Covid spread. So how do you govern that and meet your legal duty to safeguard staff and visitors to your premises while opening up your workplace?

I wish I had an easy answer. When we look at the actions being taken by corporates they vary enormously. Just a few weeks ago some corporates were committing to the return of five-day a week workplace attendance for all staff.

In recent days Tui gained headlines by saying it expected staff to be in the office just one day a month, KPMG has introduced a four-day fortnight and others are looking at similar schemes.

From a corporate governance perspective its an unholy mess. If your firm decided to ask everyone back five days a week because it’s good for creativity, team work and fundamental to the success of what you do and then swathes of staff go down with Covid have you done the right thing by heeding the Government’s urge to ‘get back to the workplace’? Have you failed your team by not thinking outside the box and adopting ‘safer’ remote and hybrid working practices? Who gets the priority, your shareholders or your staff? And which staff? Not everyone wants to work at home and in a world where compulsion has ended mask-wearing is personal choice (and scientifically iffy).

What we can say with confidence is that as the summer rolls forward this issue will start to sizzle and be a major reputational and governance nightmare for corporates. My only advice is whatever decision you take, look at it through the lens of a newspaper headline and ensure that you have strong rationale on all sides of the argument for why you believe that you have taken the right decision and how you have provided flex for those who strongly disagree with your stance (employees, politicians, customers and the wider community).

As a final thought, taking top-down decisions on these highly contentious issues is likely to stoke criticism; consultation, surveys and acting on the advice of all your stakeholders will at least provide some mitigation in an environment where the Government has, arguably, kicked the governance can down the road to UK Plc. Good luck out there, its not going to get any easier….