By Tracy Black

Recently the CBI’s director-general spoke about the importance of creating the right environment for people to return to the office. While many of the points raised are relevant across the UK, there are some clear differences when it comes to Scotland.

The most obvious is that our schools are already back, with dedicated staff working incredibly hard to keep buildings safe for pupils and teachers. If we want parents to feel confident about returning to work in the near future, help to look after children was essential. Schools and nurseries really must stay open wherever possible, with broader childcare support measures like breakfast clubs and after-hours activities to return also.

Turning our attention to the workplace – offices are very clearly vital drivers of our economy. Just think how much financial and professional services firms contribute to Scotland’s gross domestic product, for example. They also support thousands of local firms, from dry cleaners to sandwich bars. They help train and develop young people. And they foster better work and productivity for business across the board.

Remote working has been a resounding success for many firms and employees, and none of these benefits should be lost. Many people have never worked harder, keeping businesses afloat from their desks and kitchen tables. Flexible working is here to stay and needs to remain an option for many.

Yet the costs of office closures are becoming clearer by the day. Edinburgh and Glasgow city centres have started to look deserted at times, missing the usual bustle of passing trade and tourism. That comes at a high price for local businesses, jobs and communities.

And not everyone has space to work effectively at home – an ironing board in the bedroom does not make for an ideal workspace, particularly if you’re contending with lively dogs and toddlers too. More importantly, there are mental health challenges being triggered by isolation or juggling so many work and family demands at the same time.

There is also the question of fairness. Many employees, from barbers to brewers, have no option to work from home. We don’t want to see a new divide in our society – between those who can and can’t work from the safety and comfort of their homes.

For all of these reasons, we need people to feel it will be safe and possible to go back into their places of work soon.

That’s why we’re calling on the Scottish Government to start the process of building confidence around getting people back into workplaces now. Laying the groundwork for when it's deemed safe to do so.

We also need government, nationally and locally, to do more to build confidence in public transport. They need to shout louder about safety measures in place, enforce the wearing of face masks on buses, trains, subways and trams, and support the introduction of flexible season tickets so people can return gradually.

So, what about testing? The First Minister has been vocal about the importance of social distancing and following government guidance – and woe betide any footballers that fail to meet those obligations – but that doesn’t negate the urgent need for mass widespread testing – including in the workplace – to help people feel safe.

More flexible working is indisputably a good thing for our economy and quality of life, but we must have a balance. Scotland has to bring its workplaces back to life, or we’ll look back with regret at the jobs lost, training missed, and communities harmed. This isn’t about compulsion or job threats, it’s about business and government working together, laying the groundwork and building confidence for what’s immediately ahead. 

Tracy Black is director of CBI Scotland