Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Work from home - if you can!

“All those able to work from home should do so.” Part of a directive from the UK government at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic. Sound advice at the time as the intention was to reduce contact between people and thereby bring down the rate of transmission of the virus.

Four months on from Downing Street’s panic-inducing letter and many people are still following this advice, even though in many cases it is perfectly safe for them to return to their place of work. This applies at the company I work for, and is something I want to come onto later, but for now I want to concentrate on the presumption, by government – but backed up by the MSM, that a substantial proportion of the UK workforce are able to perform their daily tasks from the comfort of their own homes.

Because many politicians have little idea of life outside the Westminster “bubble” they have this notion that many UK workers spend their days sitting in front of a computer screen. This may well be true for those employed in sectors such as finance, insurance or tele-sales, but in their rush to embrace working from home for these workers, they conveniently ignore those who work in manufacturing, distribution, retail, transport and construction.

The press has adopted a similar approach, probably because the days of investigative reporters, out on the streets sniffing out a story are long gone. Today, it far more usual to find journalists also stuck in front of a screen, and with lazy journalism increasingly common, it comes as no surprise for the government line to be reported on without question. Taken to extremes, we see exaggerated claims about the end of office life, the death of commuting and the rise of homeworking splashed all over the newspapers and online news providers. 

Now I’m sure there are some who’d welcome the opportunity of working from home, regardless of any lessening of risk, and also there will be some milking this for all it’s worth but, as I hinted at earlier,  companies who have rushed to transfer the majority of their employees over to working from home need to be wary, as it may prove rather difficult in persuading them to return.

As it became obvious that the pandemic was going to cause major difficulties and pose a potential serious health risk, my company took the decision to allow employees to work from home. This applied primarily to mangers, but also those members of their teams who were able to contribute from home. The bulk of our production and packing teams were furloughed, under the government scheme, but a handful of keyworkers were retained, in order to keep things ticking over, and to receive and despatch goods, as necessary.

I had a pile of laboratory test methods to work my way through, so spent seven- or eight-days sorting these out at home. Unfortunately, the company hasn’t properly equipped its staff for home working (and still hasn’t), as several of us soon discovered, so following the implementation of adequate Covod-19 safety precautions, I returned to work. I have been at my desk, or helping out in the laboratory, ever since.

Not all managers followed suit, and after a while this started to cause some resentment. This eventually turned to a rift within the firm’s management structure, a situation not helped by communication problems with those working at home. I obviously don't want to dwell on this too much, as it's an ongoing situation that needs resolving, so we'll leave it there for the time being.

From a personal viewpoint I really disliked working from home, as not only did I feel isolated, I also felt deprived of support from my colleagues. I missed having access to work facilities, such as equipment, record and publications not available electronically but most of all I missed the companionship and camaraderie of the workplace.

Working from home removes the delicate work-home balance, because when your workplace is the spare bedroom or the kitchen table, you feel as though you are never free from your job. It’s as though it has invaded your home and taken over your life. I know that during the lockdown these feelings became intolerable for many people. This piece in the Guardian sums up the situation nicely.

So, to sum up, once the pandemic is over – and it will eventually be over, I can’t see a large-scale switch to homeworking. Instead we will probably see a more flexible approach being adopted by many companies which will allow those employees who can, to spend say a couple of days working from home, but then back in the workplace for most of the week.

To explore some of the issues that could be raised by the decline of the office, it’s worth clicking on this link to Pub Curmudgeon’s site, in which he examines some of the knock-on effects that the abandonment of our city centres, would bring.


Monday, 27 July 2020

Contactless and seamless at the Nelson

Things must be looking up as I managed to use a Contact-Tracing App for the first time on Sunday. I'd called in, on a whim, to the Nelson Arms in Tonbridge, in the full knowledge that whilst that the pub encourages pre-booking and table reservations, I might still be able to squeeze in a cheeky pint.

I fully understand the requirement for groups to pre-book, given the restraints on space and the necessity of “social distancing” (boy do I hate that phrase),  but as someone who has spent the past 47 years just popping into a pub when I fancy a beer, this really goes against the grain. With this in mind I decided to try my luck and see whether fortune smiled on me or not.

Fortunately, lady luck was on my side that day, although by the time anyone appeared to greet me upon entering the pub, I’d already scanned the QR Code and registered my details, all online. What’s more the App seamlessly connected me to the Nelson’s Wi-Fi, meaning I could surf the net, as well as check in on Untappd.

It was pub landlord Matt who greeted me, on what was my first visit since the pub re-opened. I’d called in on several occasions during lockdown, to buy the odd takeaway container of cask, but Matt and his team had made a few alterations since then. Whilst waiting for someone to appear I sanitised my hands and perused the short list of Covid-complaint rules, pinned up for all to see. Foolishly I didn’t take any photos, but I’m sure you know the score by now.

I informed Matt I only wanted a quick pint. This was fine by him and he showed me to a vacant high table, immediately opposite the bar. This was even better as I could see what beers were available from the row of hand-pumps lined up on the bar. I opted for a pint of Yankee from Rooster’s Brewery and Matt brought it over to me, on a tray. Contactless card payment followed and at just £3.60, I enjoyed my cheapest post-lockdown pint, and the only one so far at below the four-pound price mark!

Being close to the bar I was able to chat to Matt without breaking any rules, so it was almost like old times. There weren’t that many people int the pub, although there was a group of six occupying the alcove, just along from me. There were possibly several others sitting around the corner, but I thought I ought to remain seated rather than going for a look.

This also meant I didn’t get to see the garden, which I understand had been a great hit with the regulars, especially during the recent spells of sunny weather. I will have to drag my son down there later in the week, so we can see for ourselves. If I’m honest, the Yankee wasn’t the best pint I’ve had since re-opening, and this might be due to there being six cask ales on sale.

This small grip aside, I was good to sit inside a pub for only the second time since March, as on all other post-lockdown pub visits, I’ve sat in the garden. Long may this trend continue!


Friday, 24 July 2020

On the buses - a return to public transport

Exactly a  week ago I took my first tentative steps back towards using public transport. I did it in style, as the day involved two bus journeys and one by rail. The purpose behind these journeys was to deposit me at the starting point of my North Downs Walk, and then return me home from the end point. They were my first forays into the world of bus and train travel since early March, and represented a welcome return to some semblance of normality.

Except it wasn’t completely normal due to the fact that, in common with my fellow passengers, I had to wear a mask. Now on both bus journeys there was only one other passenger apart from me, and with the driver tucked safely away behind a plastic screen, where was the danger? The other passenger was sat several rows behind me as well, but rules are rules, I suppose, even if they are nothing more than pandering to the Mumsnet brigade.

My rail journey was somewhat different, as the train was more crowded that I expected. Even so there was plenty of room for “social distancing.” Not all passengers were wearing masks though, and it is in situations such as this that covering one’s face might have made a difference. The majority of the culprits were in the under twenty age bracket, with a group of young girls wearing not much more than a combination of cropped top and  skimpy shorts, the worst offenders. (Why do I keep running into females with a minimalist sense of dress?)

The law is quite clear that face-masks MUST be worn at all times whilst on the train, but with no-one present to enforce this  ruling, it is little wonder that travellers are ignoring it. The other concern of course, is that with no rail staff on hand to check on mask compliance, ticket checks and/or sales are not taking place.  

I personally don’t blame rail staff for this, especially given guidelines on social distancing etc. Also, having witnessed past encounters between fare dodgers and revenue staff, I know that these situations can become quite confrontational. You can imagine, some pimply yoof, barely able to string a sentence together, threatening to cough or, worse, spit at a hapless guard or ticket inspector, so in the meantime the railways are missing out on even more revenue.

Passenger numbers are running at a fraction of what they were pre-lockdown and whilst the government’s “magic money tree” has come to the rescue, it is an unsustainable situation, even medium term. As part of their “scare the public into staying at home” campaign, the UK government actively discouraging travel on public transport. Anyone attempting to buy a ticket, even online, was faced with a series of question’s asking if their journey was really necessary and telling them to stay at home. The travelling public were encouraged to use their own, private cars instead; something that goes against the stated policy of all political parties.

Returning to happier times, the last time  I used public transport was on 6th March, when I travelled up to Burton-on-Trent, to join members of the Beer and Pubs Forum on a pub-crawl of Britain’s premier brewing town. Both outward and return journeys involved two changes of train, and a cross London trip by Underground.

Looking back, I was a little wary at the time, as Coronavirus had already started spreading within the UK. At one point, I even considered avoiding the Underground and walking between Charing Cross and Marylebone stations, as I would be travelling at the start of the morning rush-hour.  

Because I had pre-booked tickets, timed to specific trains, there wasn't sufficient time to do this and, as it happened the tube wasn’t too crowded, but I did change carriages on the outward journey from Marylebone to Birmingham Moor Street. This was due to a person sitting a few seats behind me, coughing his lungs up.

Summing up, I enjoyed last Friday’s bus and train journeys and the sense of freedom that went with them. Any lingering doubts as to the safety of this were soon dispelled and I was able to assuage the fears of Mrs PBT’s  that I was risking my own health as well as that of the rest of the family.

The bus journey was particularly enjoyable, as the bus followed a different route to that which I would normally have taken. There was a bonus too, at Sevenoaks bus station, in the presence of a café that wasn’t just open, but one where customers were allowed to sit inside and enjoy a coffee! The breakfast options also looked tempting, as well as being very keenly priced. With my bus pass due next April, I envisage making a lot more bus journeys, especially if I can combine them with the odd pub visit!