David Bookbinder: Offices or public buildings? The Covid conundrum for housing associations
Given the public nature of many housing association offices, David Bookbinder suggests they should be subject to the same coronavirus restrictions as libraries and community centres.
For any type of business or organisation, it goes without saying that navigating through the various ups and downs of the last 15 months has been tricky.
But for the likes of gyms, hairdressers, cinemas and bingo halls, they at least know where they stand because the official guidance mentions them specifically.
Housing association offices aren’t, and have never been, specified in the guidance, and you can understand that it’s just not possible to cover every type of organisation.
There are advantages to not being specified, as it can give some leeway for a flexible approach which suits local circumstances. As community based housing associations, our members have tried hard to get the balance right, making limited use of offices as a base for staff involved in essential services (and there’s been some flexibility to self-define this too), with maintenance staff now included in this more recently.
But looking again at the Scottish Government’s guidance on the different levels, you can see the conundrum. Many associations see entering Level 0 as the most explicit signal that a fuller (but not full) return to offices can begin. The exact wording in the guidance is ‘a limited and phased return to offices’.
But is that really what our focus should be? Are we merely ‘offices’? I see ‘offices’ as mainly denoting buildings where workers work but the public generally doesn’t visit – for example an insurance company’s office in the city centre.
Might we fit better into the category of public buildings such as libraries and community centres, which can now open across Scotland in Level 2 and below? People sometimes need and want to visit our offices.
Did we really intend to end up with the situation where you can get your hair done, go the library, gym or bingo hall but not your local housing association office? And if the office is in a community centre, you can go to part of the centre but not to the HA office?
One of our members in Level 1, where pretty much everything is open and up to eight people can meet in an indoor public place, has a local office with seven staff. But to the association’s exasperation, it’s closed because the phased reopening of offices doesn’t come until the area is in Level 0.
And there’s nervousness among members that some staff may feel they should be working from home even under Level 0 because the guidance says to do that ‘where possible’. That’s an understandable reaction if staff are taking HA offices to simply be offices and not public buildings.
None of this surmising on my part is intended to put pressure on associations to open up their offices more fully. The welfare of staff – not all of whom will yet have had two vaccines (or even one in the case of younger staff) – is paramount. Approaches will be mixed, but plenty of our members are telling us that increasing numbers of staff who have been vaccinated do want to be back in the office, at least for some of the week.
I’m absolutely not suggesting prescription on this issue: that’s rarely a good thing. But if any individual association wants to see itself more as a public building than just an office, and look at some kind of phased return before getting to Level 0, that would seem to make sense to me, where this can be done in accordance with the usual distancing/hygiene guidelines.
It might need, though, a signal from the Scottish Government that this would be an acceptable option to adopt for those that want to. Definitely one for the next meeting of the Social Housing Resilience Group to consider.
- David Bookbinder is director at the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations