A recent survey has revealed that only 5% of Belfast employees have returned to their workplace.
The statistic comes from the Belfast Chamber of Commerce which surveyed its members last month. The survey did reveal that while up to 60% of people are splitting their time between the office and their home, 35% continue to work from home.
Working from home, if suitable for both the business and its employees, is the official public health advice in Northern Ireland.
A ‘phased return’, whereby, for example, employees are brought back depending on how essential they are, has been the go-to for businesses coming out of lockdown.
A phased return is also what Simon Hamilton, chief executive of Belfast Chamber, is suggesting Stormont ministers consider when reviewing their guidance.
"I have spoken with many members who have staff that want to return to the office for a whole host of reasons…But they have stated clearly to me the executive's guidance, which remains at step one on their pathway to recovery.
"We would encourage the executive to move to step three on its pathway and permit a phased return to the office where this is safe and has been subject to the necessary risk assessments."
Returning to work
Returning to work and some form of normality is what everybody wants.
To bring that possibility one step closer, Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts says it’s "vital" that the NI Executive works on a strategy that would allow office workers to return safely.
"This is crucial, not just for Belfast, but for the economic future of all our major towns and cities in Northern Ireland. Office workers provide a large amount of footfall and trade for retail and hospitality sectors in many of our high streets."
He added, "Given that both sectors are facing severe difficulties at the minute, the return of office workers is vitally important for their future viability."
Calls for clear guidance
Carmel Gates, from the union Nipsa, says workers shouldn’t go back to their workplace if it’s not safe to do so.
"Scientific advice is that we need to protect our members and if you can't socially distance in offices or other workplaces, then you are safer at home.”
She further stressed the need for ministers to address mixed messages and provide clear guidance.
"Ministers should not be giving a mixed message. The message should be to stay safe. Nothing in the economy is worth lives."
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