Unions say workers should be able to choose to work from home despite calls for return to the office
Calls for workers to return to city-centre offices to help provide a boost for businesses do not fit with changing trends, a leading Edinburgh trade unionist has warned.
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An accelerated return to the workplace was one of the immediate priorities listed in the blueprint for the Capital's recovery from Covid published this week by business leaders. They argued it was essential to help breathe energy and life back into the city centre.
But Des Loughney, secretary of Edinburgh Trade Union Council, said many people had found benefits in working from home and would want to continue it at least part of the time rather than return fully to the office.
He said the issue needed to be seen in the wider context of other trends affecting city centres, not least the increase in online shopping.
Mr Loughney said: “The future of retail in a city centre like Edinburgh has lots of challenges. It's inevitable, the way things are going, there will be fewer shops and fewer workers in the city centre. I’m not sure about the argument that the city centre depends on workers being there.
“And the city council wants to discourage car use in the centre of the city. That’s a long-term change which I think has to happen, but that poses questions, in terms of green policies, about whether a city centre like Edinburgh had or has is outdated.”
Mr Loughney said some people would want to continue working from home but others would not.
He said: "A lot of members have said instead of commuting from Glasgow to Edinburgh every day they have spent a lot more time with their families and they have been able to do a lot more work under less stress.
"Some employers have provided them with the equipment they need and pay them expenses for working from home such as a share of electricity bills and computer fees.
"But sometimes employers don't pay any of the home expenses and people have to work in difficult circumstances. If you're a single parent with two young children and have to work from home it’s much more difficult.”
But he added: “A new consciousness of the meaning of flexible working has arisen in the last year and if employees want to work flexibly – and that includes working from home –employers should be prepared to consider and negotiate that.”
Edinburgh Greens’ economy spokesman Alex Staniforth spoke out against too early a return to offices.
He said: “Firstly we are still in a pandemic. It may be the home stretch but rushing back into the office when it’s not absolutely necessary risks developing a vaccine-resistant strain and putting us back to square one, which would be really bad for city centre businesses.
“In the longer term, the way people work is likely to change owing to Covid and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Working from home isn’t for everyone but for some people it’s a real benefit to not have to travel now that we’ve found working from home is possible. And, of course, it’s of great benefit to the environment to not have people travelling unnecessarily.
“We should focus on the needs of people and planet rather than one small lobbying group when we decide how the workplace should look in the future.”