Boris Johnson must do more to get office workers back at their desks, a senior business leader says today.
Carolyn Fairbairn warns commercial centres risk being permanent ‘ghost towns’.
Writing in the Mail, the director-general of the CBI says getting staff back into offices and workplaces is as important as the return of pupils to school.
‘The UK’s offices are vital drivers of our economy,’ says Dame Carolyn, who speaks for almost 200,000 firms. ‘They 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 many kinds of business.
‘The costs of office closure are becoming clearer by the day. Some of our busiest city centres resemble ghost towns, missing the usual bustle of passing trade. This comes at a high price for local businesses, jobs and communities.’
Dame Carolyn’s intervention will pressure the Prime Minister to match his rhetoric on the need to return to school with similar words – and action – about workplaces.
An audit of major employers conducted by the Mail reveals most have only a small percentage of staff back in the office – and many are telling people they will not be back at their desks until January at the earliest.
Firms opting to keep most staff working from home for the rest of the year include NatWest, which employs almost 50,000; BT, which has 40,000 staff at home; KPMG, which has only 10 per cent of its 16,000 staff in the office; and Vodafone, whose 7,850 staff are almost all at home.
Tech giant Microsoft has said it will not start returning its 3,000 UK staff to their desks until at least November.
A separate survey by the BBC yesterday found that 50 of the country’s biggest employers have no plans to return all staff to the office full time.
The Government last month dropped the formal pandemic advice that people should work from home if possible.
Mr Johnson said ‘start to go back to work now if you can’ and ordered Whitehall to draw up detailed plans for getting more civil servants back. However the return to work across Government appears to have been only a trickle, rather than a flood.
No 10 was yesterday unable to say how many officials were back at their desks.
Ministers are in talks about workplace testing for coronavirus in order to give staff more confidence to return. But talks are still at an early stage and there has been no effort to encourage commuters back onto public transport.
A Whitehall source said last night: ‘Getting people back to work is something the PM feels strongly about. It is slowly happening in Whitehall but not at the pace we would want.’
Jace Tyrrell, of the New West End Company, a business group, said shops in central London could not survive unless office workers returned. He said traders still had only half their normal customers.
‘We are encouraging a very strong instruction from the Prime Minister and the current mayor of London to encourage Londoners back to the office and work – that’s the only way we are going to survive this year for the retail and hospitality sectors in the West End,’ he added.
Andy Street, Tory mayor of the West Midlands, said Birmingham’s public transport system was still only carrying 20 per cent of pre-Covid passengers. He said this could rise to 50 per cent in the coming months, but added: ‘This is undeniably a very difficult situation for businesses that thrive on the back of the big office occupiers being there.
‘What we are trying to do is steadily build confidence that it is safe to return to the city centre.’
Tory MP Nickie Aiken, whose Cities of London and Westminster constituency has been badly hit by the lack of office workers, urged senior managers to ‘show leadership’ by getting back to the office themselves next month to lead a wider return to work.
She said: ‘It is not just the big brands that are feeling the pain without workers popping out to eat or shop in their lunch hours or after work.
‘The independent shops, cafes, restaurants and bars are also hurting. The list is endless and without offices returning these small businesses are likely to shut up shop for good.’
Mrs Aiken also rounded on London mayor Sadiq Khan for failing to make clear to commuters that it was now safe to use public transport again. Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith urged the Prime Minister to ‘get a grip’, adding: ‘Otherwise we are going to face an even worse economic catastrophe than we already are.’
Sir Iain said the Government should ‘lead by example’ by insisting civil servants return to work.
But Dave Penman, of the First Division Association of senior civil servants, yesterday predicted more than two thirds of officials could still be at home at the end of the year. ‘Numbers are steadily going up but it’s not going to be huge numbers, it’s not going to be a majority by the end of the year.
‘We’ll probably get to 30 or 40 per cent over time.’
49,000 staff working from home, around 10,000 staff in branches and offices
Most not expected to return to the office until next year. A spokesman said: ‘We told colleagues they will continue to work from home until 2021 – because we’re prioritising customer and colleague health and wellbeing.’
52,000 UK staff, 46,000 working from home
Bank has said it does not have any plans for a return to the office before September at the earliest. Even then, it expects offices to be ‘less than 20 per cent’ full.
6,900 of 8,500 staff office-based
Staff told not to return to office until 2021. Proposals to let back-office employees work from home for most of the time and for offices in Glasgow and Newcastle to become ‘collaboration hubs’ for meetings.
One of two London offices to close permanently, staff to work from home until at least January. Afterwards, they will work from home for minimum of three days.
750 UK staff
Main London office is to open from September 7. But chief operating officer Jon Noble said: ‘No one will be required to return to the office (if they don’t want to) for the rest of 2020.’
16,000 UK staff
Staff will swap between working from home and the office, according to the head of the investment bank, Daniel Pinto.
50,000 of 63,000 staff working from home
No plans for an imminent return to the office. From October, bank will test different types of flexible working to decide how often staff will visit the office. It is looking for ways to reduce the office space it uses.
Majority of 5,000 staff working from home Gradual return to office expected in coming months, but staff are likely to work from home more often in future.
80,000 staff globally, 70,000 working at home
From October, the gradual return of more staff is set to begin. Boss Jes Staley has said he wants to get staff ‘back together’.
18,000 UK office staff, more than 15,000 of whom are working from home.
This is expected to continue until at least the end of this month.
11,200 office staff
Firm said it had consulted staff and offices will re-open from September 7, but on a ‘reduced capacity basis’ and ‘increase steadily over time in line with the guidelines set by the UK’.
20,000 office-based staff
Most still working from home. Small number of offices reopened in July, with more being considered.
16,000 UK office staff
No more than 10 per cent of office staff have returned for ‘business-critical reasons’. Vast majority will work from home for most of the year. Anna Purchas of KPMG said: ‘We anticipate that the majority of our people will work from home for the majority of 2020.’
40,000 of 52,000 office staff working at home
Around 10,000 staff in ‘critical customer and network operations teams’ have continued to attend the office. Staff will begin ‘gradual’ return from September.
8,300 UK office staff
Pharmaceutical giant says 75 per cent of are still working from home. They will not start returning until September, when a ‘phased approach’ will begin.
15,000 UK staff
Only small numbers back in the office. No date announced for major return, although scientists have been working on site for most of crisis.
8,000 of 22,000 going in to the office.
About 50 per cent are expected to have returned by the end of September under current plans, but it’s ‘entirely voluntary’.
14,000 office staff
Only a ‘very small percentage’ of its office-based staff have returned. Has not announced detailed plans for when they will go back.
A spokesman said: ‘Depending on the nature of our employee’s role, flexible working arrangements have been expanded and made available.’
10,000 office staff
Majority expected to continue working from home until at least October. A spokesman said: ‘we conducted an in-depth survey of our employees’ experiences and opinions and are acting on their feedback. Work continues on a phased return plan.’
2,000 office staff
The firm has said it believes working patterns will never return fully to normal. Boss Alan Jope said he foresees it being ‘many more months’ before staff begin returning to the office. He added: ‘We think we will never be back to 100 per cent of workers’ time being in the office.’
6,500 office staff in UK
Only a ‘small number’ are returning, and it may be months before things return to normal. It is reviewing its offices and could shift 50,000 staff globally to remote working.
Chief executive Bernard Looney said: ‘Work patterns are changing. We expect to move to a more hybrid work style.’
About 7,850 office staff
Only a very small number of staff have returned to the office. Firm broadly expects ‘to stay as we are’ until the end of 2020. It expects to use a mixture of office based and remote working in future.
17,000 office workers
Vast majority will remain working from home ‘for the time being’. About 500 have returned to offices. The insurance giant has said it will start testing out how to combine home and office working when some of its staff begin returning to offices in September.
7,500 office staff
Only 15 per cent of staff have returned to its offices in Cardiff, Swansea and Newport. Company has said it wants to combine ‘flexible workspaces with regular remote working options’ for staff in future.
6,400 UK staff
Under lockdown, 96 per cent of staff were working from home. Only 1,200 are now back in the office. Company has said it is taking a ‘measured, step-by-step’ approach. It said it intends 80 per cent of staff to spend ‘a day or two per fortnight’ in the office in future.
3,000 UK office workers
Staff not be required to return to the office until at least November. A spokesman said: ‘We have a hybrid workplace strategy in place as worksites slowly start to open.’
4,000 office-based staff
No plans to return until September at the earliest. A spokesman said: ‘We expect a return to the office to be a gradual process.’
3,000 office-based workers in Bristol
Only 20 per cent of office staff had returned in July. Phased return planned this month.
2,200 lawyers globally
Linklaters will be operating a flexible working scheme where lawyers can spend 20 to 50 per cent of their time working remotely.
Decisions taken over the next few weeks will shape our economy for a decade. Getting schools back is an essential component. But as important will be building the right environment to get people back into offices and workplaces.
The UK’s offices are vital drivers of our economy. They support thousands of local firms, from drycleaners to sandwich bars. They help train and develop young people. And they foster better work and productivity for many kinds of business.
The costs of office closure are becoming clearer by the day. Some of our busiest city centres resemble ghost towns, missing the usual bustle of passing trade. This comes at a high price for local businesses, jobs and communities.
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.
But there are serious downsides too. For young people, learning face to face in the workplace is an unbeatable way to build skills and confidence. We must not deprive the next generation of this opportunity.
Not everyone has the space to work effectively at home – an ironing board in the bedroom does not make a great workspace. And the mental health challenges triggered by isolation are all too real for many.
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 these reasons we need more people to feel it is safe and possible to go back into their places of work. This is why we are today calling on the Prime Minister and his Government to do more to build confidence around getting people back into offices and workplaces.
Getting schools open safely is a vital first step to enable parents to go back to work, but they must stay open wherever possible.
This means effective test and trace, and a focus on resilience. We need government, nationally and locally, to do much more to build confidence in public transport.
They need to shout louder about safety measures in place, enforce the wearing of face masks on tubes, buses and trains, and support the introduction of flexible season tickets so people can return gradually without financial penalty.
And we urgently need mass widespread testing – including in the workplace – to help people feel confident and safe. We welcome the Health Secretary’s recent commitment to a mass testing strategy for 2021.
More flexible working is indisputably a good thing for our economy and quality of life, but we must have a balance. It’s time for the UK to bring its workplaces back to life, or we will look back with regret at the jobs lost, training missed, and communities harmed.
We ask the Government to work with business to build confidence in returning to offices, starting now.