UK government wants workers back in offices - but do employers?

A marketing blitz is underway in the UK to urge millions of workers to return to the office, but it risks falling upon deaf ears with major companies already planning to cut the amount of office space they lease and workers who are reluctant to go back.

The government drive to end working from home begins days after Downing Street was forced to disown comments by a government source who told a British newspaper that working for home may make employees vulnerable to losing their job.

Kicking off the new campaign with a plea to employers, Treasury minister Steve Barclay said of abandoning home working: ‘We think that’s best for the economy, to get back to normal as part of our recovery.’

But evidence suggests some big employers have other ideas about what is best for them, including reckoning with the potential of being sued by employees who fall ill with Covid-19.

Capita – the outsourcing firm responsible for collecting the BBC licence fee in the UK – is to permanently close a third of its offices, 100 sites in total, say reports. Capita said the decision follows staff consultation. Elsewhere, finance giant Schroders, investment bank JP Morgan and law giant Linklaters all announced they are to make permanent flexible working, including working from home.

Meanwhile, the credibility of the new campaign risks being undermined if it appears there is one rule for workers paid from the public purse and another for those in the private sector. Civil servants in Whitehall – the seat of the British state – have been told they can expect to work from home for up to the next 12 months.

Research shows UK workers are among the least enthusiastic in Europe about ditching remote working to return to their desks. Research by Alphawise for Morgan Stanley reveals only 34% of UK employees have returned to the office in August, against an average of 68% for the rest of Europe.

France leads Europe in the rate of workers returning to the office, with 83% no longer out of office. In Spain, Germany and Italy, the return rate is around 75%. Last weekend, French president Francois Macron warned another national lockdown may be coming due to a surge in infections.

Property sector research reveals office leasing in London has nosedived during the pandemic. Leasing activity in London in Q2 was down 57% on the previous quarter, according to DeVono Cresa. Meanwhile, average commercial lease lengths in the UK dropped to 27.4 months in June – an 18-month low.

UK politicians are desperate to reboot the national economy. National GDP fell by a record 20.4% in Q2 this year, after lockdown measures to halt the spread of the Covid-19 virus plunged the economy into a pandemic-induced coma. The economy shrank by 2.2% of GDP between January and March, including by 6.9% in March – even though the month contained only nine days lockdown from the 23rd.

Worse economic pain is to come it is feared, unless office workers return to work in city centres where jobs in businesses such as shops, cafes, bars, taxis and more, depend upon passing trade. The services sector accounts for around three quarters of UK GDP.


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