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
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