City banks’ return-to-work plans hit by delay to lockdown easing

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Plans by City banks to bring thousands of workers back to the office are in disarray after Boris Johnson postponed a lifting of lockdown restrictions.

Guidelines encouraging people to “continue to work from home if you can” in England were due to be dropped on 21 June, but that move will now be delayed by four weeks.

The corporate world has become increasingly split over home working but across the City, major banks had planned to welcome more staff into offices from next week.

They included Goldman Sachs, whose boss David Solomon has criticised remote working as an “aberration” and called for a return to offices as soon as government guidance allowed. About 30% of its 6,000 London staff are currently filing into the London office, where workers are tested twice a week by more than a dozen on-site medical staff. Plans to further boost office attendance at the US investment bank are now in doubt following the UK government’s delay.

NatWest, Credit Suisse, Barclays and Deutsche Bank were also expected to bring more staff in from next week but are now prepared to tell employees to wait until work from home orders are lifted.

The prime minister’s announcement on Monday evening came as an official study showed that company bosses are more keen than their staff for a return of workers to UK offices after the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said more than a third of people working from home – 36% – thought they would keep the arrangement for most of the week. However, there is less enthusiasm among managers, with as few as 24% of companies planning to use increased home working in future.

Based on the answers of thousands of workers and businesses surveyed by government statisticians in the past two months, the study signalled that a high degree of uncertainty still remains as employers weigh up their options. More than a quarter of firms still do not know what they will do.

Related: Five-day week in office could return soon, says UK thinktank

According to the snapshot from the ONS, more flexibility for workers is expected in future, amid a sharp rise in online job adverts where home working is mentioned. But while the pandemic has accelerated remote-working practices, the early survey evidence suggests it will remain in the minority.

Most people did not work from home during the pandemic, according to the figures, despite a larger proportion in London and the south-east, in IT and professional jobs, and in high-paying roles working remotely.

The proportion of working adults who did any work from home rose to 37% on average last year from 27% in 2019. While this figure fluctuated in line with lockdown restrictions, most people continued to travel to work.

Home working graphic

Separate figures from the AlphaWise research unit of Morgan Stanley show British workers have increasingly been spending more time at their desks in the past few months. Reflecting a gradual return to work after lockdown, UK office-based staff were spending almost half (46%) of their time at their usual workplace in late May, the highest level in six months.

Most UK employees expect to return to their workplace during August, compared with an average expectation of mid-July in the five countries surveyed. AlphaWise said office workers across Europe want to continue to work from home for on average two days a week. On average, UK workers would like to work remotely for roughly half of the working week, 2.3 days, slightly higher than in Europe.

Although British workers have started returning to offices in greater numbers, the research showed the UK still lags behind France, Germany, Italy and Spain for office-based staff returning to their usual workplace.

According to the ONS, as many as 85% of staff currently working from home want a “hybrid” approach of both office and home working in future. Businesses also expect to use such practices in future but expect most of their staff to be in the office.

Higher-income workers are more likely to expect they will continue with a hybrid mix of working from home and the office in future compared with lower-paid staff. Younger workers expect to return to their normal place of work sooner than older employees. IT and communications businesses are most likely to offer home working in future.

Hugh Stickland of the ONS said: “While many workers clearly prefer working from home, today’s research suggests their bosses remain unconvinced. Clearly, it is much easier to work from home when offering IT support than it is when running a cafe, which is virtually impossible.

“However, the increased mentions of home working in jobs adverts shows at least some employers coming around to the new normal.”

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