Workers slow to return to offices after England relaxes rules

Workers were only slowly returning to offices around England on Monday after the government relaxed its guidance about working from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the centre of London footfall was only 2 per cent higher on Monday compared with last week, according to data collected by the New West End Company, reflecting how the number of office workers and visitors remained subdued. Footfall was 68 per cent lower compared with this time last year.

Boris Johnson last month announced a relaxation of the official guidance put in place at the start of the Covid-19 crisis that many people should work from home if possible, with the change taking effect on Monday.

The prime minister has encouraged employers to bring staff back to their offices, partly because they are seen as crucial to helping struggling hospitality businesses and other services companies in city centres and town high streets.

But many companies have warned that they will only gradually return employees to their workplaces in the autumn.

Some large companies have said that the majority of their staff will not go back to offices until 2021, including those in the financial services industry, such as NatWest and Standard Life Aberdeen. 

A survey of business leaders released on Tuesday by London First, the lobby group, found that the vast majority of workers remained at home, with almost three-quarters of companies saying that a fifth or less of employees were back in the office. 

The survey, which focused on 100 business leaders and was conducted at the end of July, showed that 41 per cent would now require less workspace although they would stay committed to a lease.

Half of the companies said that remote working would become a permanent feature for most of their staff, although 70 per cent stated it was important for productivity that employees returned to the office.

Almost four-fifths of companies have made their offices Covid-secure, such as by redesigning buildings, staggering work times and requiring staff to wear face masks.

Paul Drechsler, chair of London First, said the main barriers to a bigger return by employees to offices had been public transport and childcare, but suggested that this could change next month partly because of the planned reopening of schools.

He added that it was time for the government to “work flat out with public transport operators to boost confidence in the transport system. The public need to know the best time to travel and the safety measures in place”.

Smaller businesses have also flagged that many employees will stay away from offices.

A survey by the British Chambers of Commerce at the start of July showed that 62 per cent expected some or all of their staff to be working remotely for the next year.


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