En­tic­ing work­ers back to the of­fice could be spark that ig­nites recovery

Lucy Bur­ton ex­am­ines whether An­drew Bailey’s ‘re­turn to work’ plan can find the sup­port to suc­ceed

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business -

Few com­muters miss cram­ming on to a stuffy train or bus to get to work each day. So when one fi­nancier was told it was time for him to go back to his of­fice in Ca­nary Wharf, he was re­luc­tant. Af­ter a week of spend­ing two hours on the Tube each day, he called it quits and be­gan work­ing from home again.

“The value of an of­fice comes from your prox­im­ity to co-work­ers – if so­cial dis­tanc­ing means ca­pac­ity is capped at 50pc, then it isn’t enough to out­weigh the in­ef­fi­ciency of a twohour com­mute. More work can get done from home,” he ar­gues.

Many agree. In­ter­nal staff sur­veys con­ducted by City firms show that huge swathes of work­ers have no de­sire to go back to the of­fice, prompt­ing some to shrink their of­fice space per­ma­nently. Boris Johnson this week said he is con­cerned that a fear of com­mut­ing is hold­ing back eco­nomic recovery.

The worry is de­serted city cen­tres. Bank of Eng­land Gov­er­nor An­drew Bailey told Tory MPs on Wed­nes­day that he had been driv­ing to his of­fice ev­ery day since lock­down was im­posed and is shocked by how empty Lon­don still feels. He said work­ers must go back to their of­fices to sup­port cafés, restau­rants, bars and shops that de­pend on their cus­tom.

Many shops and cafés in ar­eas of Lon­don that rely on of­fice work­ers are yet to re­open, with some that have de­cided to brave it bring­ing in less than £100 a day. Sand­wich and cof­fee chain Pret A Manger has suf­fered sig­nif­i­cant losses in the coro­n­avirus cri­sis with sales down by 74pc, trig­ger­ing plans to per­ma­nently shut 30 shops.

Richard Lim, who runs con­sul­tancy Re­tail Eco­nom­ics, says that while large shop­ping cen­tres such as West­field have the “grav­i­ta­tional pull of be­ing a day out”, hun­dreds of high streets and shop­ping malls across Bri­tain are en­tirely de­pen­dent on of­fice work­ers pop­ping in on their lunch breaks or daily com­mute.

“One of the ar­eas that stands out is Ca­nary Wharf. It’s got a huge re­tail propo­si­tion, a load of bars, restau­rants, lots of re­tail­ers there, and the rent and the leases are priced and pred­i­cated on the fact there’s a huge churn of of­fice work­ers in that par­tic­u­lar lo­ca­tion,” he says.

“The suc­cess of some lo­ca­tions like Ca­nary Wharf are com­pletely de­pen­dent on peo­ple go­ing back to work.” Be­fore the coro­n­avirus cri­sis

Lim es­ti­mates the UK had about 20pc too much re­tail space that would be re­duced over the next decade – a trend that will now speed up.

Con­cerns about a sec­ond virus wave and fears work­ers will not be pre­pared to take the risk of re­turn­ing to the of­fice means many com­pa­nies that were boom­ing be­fore Covid-19 now face a threat to their ex­is­tence.

Af­ter kit­ting out spare rooms and kitchen ta­bles with com­pany-funded mon­i­tors and key­boards and suc­cess­fully work­ing from home for months, many see no rea­son to go back to their old ways.

The of­fice will not be what it used to be when they go back ei­ther – new ad­di­tions in­clude ther­mal imag­ing cam­eras, tem­per­a­ture checks, one-way cor­ri­dors and empty desks to stop col­leagues from get­ting too close. Fears about us­ing pub­lic trans­port are also a ma­jor is­sue for city cen­tres. Mr Bailey has told min­is­ters that train usage re­mains be­low 20pc of ca­pac­ity, urg­ing them to re­store con­fi­dence in us­ing pub­lic trans­port to en­cour­age peo­ple back to work. He warned that the coun­try will be “in a re­ces­sion for a long time” if his ad­vice is ig­nored.

In the quiet City of Lon­don, where Bailey works, there is hope that big-spend­ing fi­nanciers will start to come back. One ex­ec­u­tive who works in the area says their firm is clos­ing in on a three-day-a-week strat­egy and a “drift back to nor­mal­ity” from Septem­ber. How­ever, “there’s a lot of re­sis­tance on the ground” for the plan, the per­son says.

City ty­coon Peter Crud­das, the founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of CMC Mar­kets, says he be­lieve em­ploy­ees want to come back. He says Lon­don staff are start­ing to re­turn with about 20pc of all em­ploy­ees cur­rently back in the of­fice. “Once lock­down eases more will ar­rive, but we are await­ing guid­ance from the Gov­ern­ment,” he says. “Any vul­ner­a­ble staff for what­ever rea­son do not have to re­turn. Peo­ple want to get back now.

“Other of­fices around the world are more or less back to nor­mal. Aus­tralia [of­fice in Syd­ney] is run­ning at 50pc ca­pac­ity.”

‘The suc­cess of lo­ca­tions like Ca­nary Wharf are com­pletely de­pen­dent on peo­ple go­ing back to work’

An­drew Bailey told Tory MPs that he has been shocked by how empty Lon­don still feels

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