Does ‘Johnson’s law’ explain why people won’t work from home?

18 June 2021

9:22 PM

18 June 2021

9:22 PM

Even after the one metre rule and the limits on numbers are removed on July 19th, we will not be back to anything approaching normal life. From self-isolation to travel we will not be returning to the status quo ante. Another way in which life will be different, as I say in the Times today, is that offices will still be nowhere near as busy as they were before the pandemic. Ministers will end the work-from-home guidance next month. But there’ll be no national ‘back to the office’ day.

It will be left to employers to decide how much they want to push the issue. Most ministers think people won’t start to return in big numbers until after the summer break.

One big question is whether people will want to carry on working from home or whether a fear of missing out will propel them back to the office.

Johnson is convinced it will be the latter. He likes to talk about ‘Johnson’s law’: the more people see each other on Zoom during lockdown, the more they’ll want to meet up when life resumes. Another favourite of his, is ‘the theory of propinquity’, the idea that people want to be around others and that is what will naturally happen. Either way, the existing right to request flexible working and the Tory manifesto pledge to consult on making flexible working ‘the default unless employers have good reasons not to’ are now much more significant.

It is far harder now for companies to refuse these requests. Their success in coming up with technological workarounds, allowing everyone to keep working even when they are not in the office, makes it trickier for them to just say no to home working.

The biggest threat to normality, though, will come later in the year. Even at the best of times, the NHS struggles in winter. As one minister pointed out, if there’s a variant which the vaccines prove less effective against and cases start to rise dramatically, it is hard to see what strategy the government has other than another set of lockdowns. This fear of a vaccine-evading variant explains why international travel will continue to be restricted.

If the country can get through this winter without another lockdown, then a combination of ever-more effective booster shots — in its trial, the Novavax jab was 100 per cent effective in preventing moderate and severe disease — and better treatments should mean we can begin to treat Covid like any other diseases.

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