UK office workers slower to return to their desk after Covid

British office workers have returned to their desks at a much slower pace than staff in France, Germany, Italy or Spain, as they continue to work from home following the lockdown.

Only one-third (34%) of UK white-collar employees have gone back to work, lagging far behind their European counterparts, where almost three-quarters of staff (68%) have done so, according to analysis from US bank Morgan Stanley’s research unit AlphaWise.

French and Italian companies have led the charge in bringing their teams back to the workplace, as 83% of French office staff have returned, followed by 76% in Italy.

In England, companies have been urged to encourage employees to return to their workplaces from this week by Boris Johnson, although early reports suggest only a relatively small number have heeded the call thus far. The recommendation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is for staff to continue to work from home where possible.

It is unclear whether the UK’s slower return to the office could be related to the earlier impositions of lockdown and subsequent easing of restrictions in the four other European countries.

In all five European countries, office workers have continued to work remotely for longer than employees based in other kinds of workplaces.

Technology, including high-speed internet and video conferencing apps, has enabled successful working from home for many companies which usually occupy offices, and as a result firms have been more reluctant to ask their employees to return.

Half of all British workers surveyed (52%) have returned to their normal workplace, compared with 82% of French employees and 72% across the major European economies surveyed.

Workers in London are much more likely to continue to work remotely than their counterparts in other European capitals including the Paris region, Madrid, Berlin or Rome.

Almost three-quarters (69%) of employees in the British capital have not returned to their workplace, compared with only 26% of workers in Paris, and just 22% of employees based in Barcelona.

Similarly, about half (49%) of London office workers are working from home for five days a week, compared with 33% in Madrid, and 30% in Rome and the Italian region of Lazio.

The Morgan Stanley survey was conducted in mid-July, before the government updated its guidance for businesses.

Boris Johnson told companies in England it would be up to them to decide from 1 August when and how to bring back staff and also scrapped the previous guidance to avoid public transport.

However, recent analysis by the Guardian showed that several of Britain’s largest office occupiers have not heeded the government’s call.

Many companies cited uncertainty about asking their employees to use public transport and the need for childcare during school summer holidays as reasons not to end remote working before September at the earliest.

The government is keen to get workers back into corporate buildings to support smaller businesses in many towns and cities, from sandwich shops to dry cleaners, that provide services to the country’s army of office workers.

High street retailer WH Smith announced on Wednesday it would cut 1,500 jobs because of struggling sales in its travel business, which includes branches at airports, as well as small kiosk-style stores in bus and railway stations.

Sandwich chain Pret a Manger said in July it would permanently close 30 outlets and could cut 1,000 jobs after sales plummeted as a result of continued working from home.

Workers across mainland Europe have similar views on where and how they will work in future.

The vast majority (82%) of more than 4,300 office workers questioned in all five countries who have worked from home during the pandemic would like to continue remote working.

Yet employees’ desire to work remotely does not necessarily spell the end of the office.

Most workers who wish to continue working from home would like to split their time between the office and home, with one or two days a week working remotely, while only a small proportion (17%) want to stay at home full-time.

Office staff are not yet clear which remote working policies will be implemented by their employers, however 82% believe they will be allowed to stay at home for between one and two days a week.

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