The traditional end-of-summer commuter crush appears unlikely to materialise next week as companies and staff shun the office and embrace remote working, prompting a warning from the UK’s leading business body about the future of firms that rely on passing trade.
Hundreds of thousands of mostly white-collar workers are expected to continue working from home, in some cases permanently, despite the reopening of schools in England over the next fortnight.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), which represents 190,000 firms, has called on businesses and the government to strike a balance to ensure outlets in sparsely populated city centres do not face oblivion.
“Remote working has been a real success for many firms and employees, and none of the many benefits should be lost,” said the CBI’s deputy director general, Josh Hardie. “But there has also been a knock-on effect to our town and city centres, where many businesses dependent on passing trade face an uphill battle just to survive.
“Both the government and business have a role to play in supporting more people back to the workplace safely and securely. Things won’t return to how businesses operated pre-Covid-19, nor should they. But there is a middle ground to find as the economy reopens.”
Train operators said on Wednesday that they were beginning to ramp up services to normal levels, with capacity due to hit more than 90% from 7 September as school holidays come to an end and many parents go back to work.
Passengers will be invited to use National Rail’s Alert Me app that will provide up-to-the-minute information about which trains are busy, to help people practise social distancing.
But plans being drawn up by several major businesses indicate that the end of summer and the reopening of schools will not herald a return to the urban rush hour of old.
Lloyds Banking Group has said it is reviewing its office space needs and exploring new ways of working after concluding that 50,000 of its 65,000 staff have worked from home effectively during the pandemic. It plans to distribute more equipment such as laptops to staff to enable them to work in a more agile way.
The Wall Street giant JP Morgan, which employs 16,000 people in the UK, is expected to let investment banking staff rotate between the office and home working on a permanent basis. Around 20% of its UK staff have returned to the office, and the proportion is set to increase over the coming months. Junior recruits who are still in training are among the few staff required to show up in person from 8 September.
NatWest – formerly Royal Bank of Scotland – will adopt a hybrid model, with 50,000 of its 65,000 staff working from home at least until 2021, with some element of the new working model retained beyond that. HSBC wants some of its 52,000 staff to start coming back to the office but will cap building capacity at 20%.
The law firm Linklaters announced this week that all of its global staff could spend 20-50% their time working remotely from now on under its “long-term agile working policy”.
Some firms are planning phased returns before the end of the year. Barclays will ask some of the three-fifths of its 50,000 staff still working from home to start coming into the office in waves from October.
Tej Parikh, the chief economist at the business leaders’ group the Institute of Directors, said there was no guarantee things would snap back to normal come the end of the summer holidays, even with schools reopening.
“Many businesses have found remote working suits them and their people, with commuting costs cut to a minimum,” he said. “The benefits of the office for some firms shouldn’t be understated: it can often provide more informal development and a better working environment for staff. However, the pandemic could see a lasting shift for some office jobs.”
The Trades Union Congress called on employers not to assume that parents were now able to be come into the office. “Although schools are returning, employers must recognise that not all childcare settings will be open yet,” said its general secretary, Frances O’Grady. “They must be flexible where parents still need childcare, and make sure everyone can travel safely.”
The TUC reminded firms of their duty to carry out risk assessments to ensure staff could return safely, and it called on employers to share the results with employees.