“Work from home if you can”, “if you can’t do your job from home, go in” or "if it is important for your job, mental health or wellbeing, go in” – despite calls for clarity throughout lockdown, I still feel the need to sit down and draw a flowchart mapping the many 'ifs' of coronavirus policy after the latest changes.
When coronavirus hit, businesses across the country were faced with a challenge like never before. HR teams rallied to help whole workforces set up desks in living rooms, spare rooms and kitchen tables, reacting quickly to keep the lights on, to keep going.
When the government called on workers to get back to the office, companies pored over the guidelines about how to create a Covid-secure workplace, radically redesigning spaces and policies ready to re-open their doors.
In just one day, plans that have been weeks, if not months, in the making have had to be cast aside. There’s another raft of 'ifs' and 'buts' to get our heads around.
This is not about ignoring the reality of COVID – cases are rising and it’s absolutely essential that the public, business and government work together to minimise risk, protect lives and shore up our ailing economy.
To do that, we need to start thinking longer-term. We need guidance and legislation that looks ahead to a new normal, not back. We need to think big.
At the moment, whatever the sector, whatever the business, resources are at a premium. We can’t afford to waste the time of already stretched HR teams continually reading new guidance, producing plans that will never be implemented.
We need to acknowledge the reality of COVID and start building ways of working that keep us all productive and well – mentally and physically.
To do that, we need the confidence that the time we invest in planning won’t be wasted, that the government too is looking to the future.
As the prime minister acknowledged in the Commons yesterday, we have to change our horizon when it comes to thinking about COVID measures. This isn’t a three-week fix, it’s six-month-plus marathon.
We have to make the shift from that acute, crisis mentality to figuring out how to survive and thrive in a new normal.
Collectively, we’ve shown an incredible willingness to think differently, to react and respond to the unknown under great pressure and fear of what might be just around the corner.
But there’s a limit to how long we can stay in an acute, responsive phase. There’s a limit to how many times you can ask companies to go back to the drawing board. There’s a limit to the recovery we can make if we can only plan short term working around 'ifs' and 'buts.'
It’s a recovery that we desperately need. As the 2019-2020 financial year ended, GDP plummeted by 20.4% - the largest fall since monthly records began, and almost three quarters of a million people have been made redundant.
The challenge we’re facing is complex and ever-changing, and there’s no quick or easy answer. To tackle it, we need to put in place policies that give us both the flexibility to respond to changes in case numbers and the stability and continuity to rebuild.
To do that, we’ll need our best and brightest. We’ll need businesses to think both creatively and strategically - and to have enough time to do that without short-term distractions.
The government’s “robust but proportionate” new measures introduce necessary curbs to our social lives that will play an important role in limiting the spread of this virus in the short-term.
But to weather the storm that British business is facing, we need to start thinking about how to acknowledge and overcome the reality of working alongside COVID in the medium and long term.
The pandemic has presented us with heartbreaking challenges and losses. It brought us to a grinding halt, causing us to rethink how we do things, to appreciate things we took for granted like sharing a joke with colleagues, getting outside for a walk, hugging family and friends.
That reminder of how precarious our health is and what really matters to us is an incredible moment of insight that we can’t afford to waste.
This is not the moment to patch things up, to keep things ticking over until we can all get 'back to normal.' It’s a moment to be bold, to rethink old ideas and to make plans that not only help us to recover but to thrive – no ifs or buts.
Dave Capper is CEO of Westfield Health.