COVID-19: Workers and Employers Show No Great Enthusiasm for Returning to the Office to Revive “Business As Usual”

4.8.20

An almost entirely deserted Liverpool Street station on April 2, 2020 – a previously unpublished photo from Andy Worthington’s photo-journalism project ‘The State of London.’

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In Sunday’s Observer, the paper’s chief political commentator Andrew Rawnsley related how, a few weeks ago, a group of civil servants at the Cabinet Office were “told to find a way of re-opening nightclubs in a coronavirus-safe way.” Although they were, in Rawnsley’s words, a “bright group”, they couldn’t overcome the fundamental  — one might say fatal — flaw at the heart of the exercise. “The socially distanced nightclub is a contradiction in terms”, as Rawnsley put it, adding, “Nightclubs, by their very nature, are all about social intimacy.”

Rawnsley proceeded to explain that he was telling this story “to illustrate just how very desperate the government has been to release Britain from every aspect of lockdown and return us to something that resembles the pre-coronavirus world as closely as possible.” Our leaders, as he put it, “dreamed of returning to that prelapsarian age in which you could eat out with your family, go drinking with your mates, commute to work, celebrate a religious festival or jet off to a holiday somewhere reliably sunny without having to worry about catching or spreading a deadly disease. While never quite saying it explicitly, their ambition has essentially been to get everything open again.”

This indeed seems to be the case, and it is typical of a government made up largely of inadequate ministers who are only in place because of their enthusiasm for the insanity of Brexit, and who are led by the laziest example of a Prime Minister in living memory, that the nuances of the challenges facing us — and the unexpected opportunities for a less chaotic and more environmentally sustainable world — are being ignored.

Johnson doesn’t have the will, the energy — or, almost certainly, the ability — to engage in anything resembling a vision for the future, and he is supported in this by his chief adviser Dominic Cummings, a man so convinced of his own superiority over everyone else that he seems intent on destroying the civil service and replacing the entire bureaucracy of government with a one-man operation — himself. This was a dementedly arrogant notion before the virus hit, and now, of course, it seems nothing less than suicidally reckless.

Moreover, while the illusion of a return to normality has been created, with pubs and “non-essential” shops reopening, with households allowed to mingle, and with our roads almost as polluted and gridlocked as they were before the virus, the glaring truth that undermines Johnson’s desperate wishes is that economic activity is down — massively — and there is no wonder cure.

Since the coronavirus lockdown began, belatedly, on March 23, I have been watching London closely — and, particularly, the West End and the City, the two areas hardest hit by it. I’ve been doing so as part of my photo-journalism project ‘The State of London’, which has involved me, since 2012, taking photos every day on bike rides throughout the capital, and while the West End is not quite the ghost town it was in the first few months of lockdown, when I would cycle around the familiar sights of the West End — Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Soho and Covent Garden — and often see no more than a few dozen other people, the thousands of people who are now shopping and eating and drinking in the West End on a daily basis are just a fraction of those who did so before the lockdown — and, most crucially, are just a fraction of those required to keep the West End financially viable.

An almost entirely deserted Oxford Street on April 4, 2020 – photo by Andy Worthington from his photo-journalism project ‘The State of London.’

Foreign tourists are not the only people missing from the West End. Tourists from across the UK also used to visit the capital in droves — often to see West End shows — but the entire live cultural world has been shuttered since the lockdown began, with live music suffering a much as theatre, and, in any case, no one wants to travel to London from across the country by public transport, whether by train or by plane.

Looking at the bigger global picture, the blunt truth is that a shattered airline industry has found itself unable to entice people back on board — either to visit the UK, which, like almost everywhere on earth, is massively dependent on tourism, or, for Britons, to visit their familiar Mediterranean haunts. In the former case, people from other countries cannot have failed to notice that the UK — and England in particular — has the highest rate of excess deaths in the world, and is not a safe destination, while for Brits wishing to go abroad, the government’s pro-flying rhetoric hit a wall when the realities of quarantine intruded.

For anyone who cares about humanity’s future, the end of unfettered, promiscuous international tourism is, environmentally, absolutely necessary and long overdue, as I have written about before, but adapting to the changes will, of course, be a painful process. However, there is no magic wand to get us out of this mess, however much Boris Johnson wishes otherwise.

No going back to the office

To add to these woes, another key component of London’s economy has also disappeared — the office workers who populated the West End, and who, of course, were also essential to economic activity in the City of London (and its trading cousin, Canary Wharf), which are still largely the ghost towns they have been since the lockdown first began.

As part of the drive to return to pre-virus life, Boris Johnson set August 1 as the date when companies can ask their workers to come back to their desks, but as the Guardian noted last week, in an article entitled, ‘Companies ready to defy Boris Johnson’s planned return to work’, many of the UK’s biggest businesses were “sticking to home working arrangements or delaying a partial return until September at the earliest”, and in many cases 2021.

Google and NatWest, for example, are not planning to have staff return to offices until 2021, with the Guardian describing their decisions as showing “signs of a permanent shift in working culture”, and other firms showing reticence are Facebook, which “has not laid out its plans for reopening its three London offices to its 3,000 staff”, while “other multinationals including Vodafone and publishing firm Pearson are expected to keep employees at home until next year.”

As the Guardian also noted:

Two major employers dealt a blow to the government’s hopes of an office return on Thursday, with travel company Tui announcing that it was shutting high street stores and moving 630 of the workers affected into a home-working unit. Lloyds Banking group also announced on Thursday that it was reviewing the amount of office space it uses as it admitted that working from home had made it “less reliant on office space.”

As the Guardian’s research established, “September, when schools are expected to open again, is being viewed by many firms as a natural restart, once parents are no longer solely responsible for childcare”, with PwC, for example, the massive accounting and consultancy firm (aka PricewaterhouseCoopers), aiming “to have more than 50% of its workforce back in its offices by the end of September.”

As the Guardian explained, “Remote working was hastily introduced by British companies in March, but has generally been viewed as a success, thanks to the availability of high-speed internet and video services such as Zoom. As a result, few of the firms which in pre-pandemic times had thousands of workers in their offices are rushing to bring people back under one roof, despite the installation of hand-sanitiser stations, one-way systems and limits to the number of people who can travel in a lift.”

Although the banking sector in particular has been trying to find ways to ensure that workers can return to their offices safely, with Goldman Sachs, for example, “check[ing] the temperature each day of its 1,000 London staff who have returned out of a total in the capital of 6,000”, as it also considers “offering its employees regular Covid-19 tests”, even the banks already bringing workers back “aren’t expecting to welcome back more than 50% of workers this year”, according to Catherine McGuinness, policy chair at the City of London Corporation, “because of the need for physical distancing”, and fears about transport. As the Guardian added, “More than half a million people usually work in the Square Mile financial district, the vast majority of whom commute in on public transport.”

For further information, see the Guardian’s companion article, ‘Return to work: a sector-by-sector look at the plans of England’s major employers’, in which Barclays explained that it is also “weighing up its needs for office space”, with Jes Staley, the bank’s chief executive, stating, “We are going to think about our real estate mix, given the lessons that we’ve learned.” At the start of lockdown, Staley, famously, said, “I think the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past, and we will find ways to operate with more distancing over a much longer period of time”, and its current plans don’t involve bringing “the bulk of its 50,000 UK staff back to the office until at least the end of September”, in addition to the 20,000 employees already working in branches, call centres and its trading desk in Canary Wharf.

For other companies’ approaches, see this Evening Standard article.

So what next?

According to research conducted by recruitment firm Robert Walters, and reported by This Is Money, of 5,000 people interviewed who have been working from home, “[o]nly 13 per cent … want to go back to the office full-time”, while “[t]he remaining 87 per cent of employees want more flexibility to work remotely”, and “21 per cent would rather never go back to the office.”

Robert Walters also surveyed “2,000 companies around the world, including the UK”, and found that 44 per cent of UK companies are “considering a reduction in the size of their premises”, because “[r]emote working, aided by Zoom conference calls, has been judged a success” by businesses “who are now questioning the need for huge office buildings.”

Tom Stevenson, an investment director at Fidelity International, said, “For many office workers, and their employers, the lockdown in March was an eye-opener. The ease with which work could be transplanted from office to home surprised many, and the few hours a day we’ve gained back in place of commuting are very welcome. For some, work will never be the same again.”

He added, “The death of the office has probably been exaggerated because we are naturally social beings. But the new approach will be much more flexible and varied. And few will complain about that.”

Let’s hope that’s the case, as the end to overcrowded rush hour commuter journeys should have happened years ago, but didn’t happen because of a combination of controlling employers and employees fearful of being lonely and isolated if they didn’t work in an office.

If office work continues to be spurned, it will be a blow for those businesses dependant on crowds of workers at lunchtime and after work, but the emptying out of unnecessary offices, and the reduction in tourists supporting overpriced retail outlets, ought to deal a long-overdue blow to the greed of the real estate rental sector, hopefully leading to new and as yet unconceived options for what might be possible in an emptier West End. Meanwhile, those who continue to work from home — whether on a full time or a part time basis — ought to enable independent businesses where they live to continue to thrive, as has been the case since lockdown began.

I don’t mean to sound flippant about any of this. I understand that the chaos that the lockdown has caused to the economy is hugely damaging to many, many people, but the old way of living was unsustainable, however much we had been encouraged to think that that wasn’t the case, as we hoovered up the world’s resources, and gorged ourselves in numerous ways that contributed perilously to the emissions that are heating up the planet in a life-threatening manner — not sometime in the future, but now.

The virus has given us a chance to change our behaviour before it’s too late. The question now is the extent to which we can genuinely embrace that opportunity, and to behave with vision, humility and compassion, and a recognition of the potential enormity of the damage caused by our tendency to self-absorption, and a dangerous sense of entitlement.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from eight years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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18 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    As Boris Johnson encourages employers to urge their workers to return to the office, to revive all the businesses that serve office workers, and to keep the real estate business happy, I look at how recent research has established that just 13% of workers want to return to the office full-time, and 21% would be happy to never go back to the office at all.

    I also point out that office workers are not the only ones causing problems for businesses and their landlords, with the collapse of tourism also playing a major part. Tourism, currently, is beyond anyone’s control, as people are largely unwilling to travel, but when it comes to office workers there is clearly a balance required between what might be helpful for the wider economy, and what workers themselves want.

    Since the virus hit, and the majority of office workers have been working from home, a majority have enjoyed the new arrangement, finding that they have a better life/work balance, and enjoying that they have been able to cut out their stressful and expensive daily commute – and who can blame them? Mass commuting is environmentally insane, given the technology at our fingertips, and office space is generally hideously overpriced, so more working from home, less commuting and less offices looks like one positive aspect of the virus.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    David Francis wrote:

    Most workers don’t work in offices and have been working like normal through the pandemic regardless of health risk.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s certainly true that a majority of workers aren’t office-based, David, although no one seems sure of the exact figures – maybe around a third to 40%. But not everyone else has been working. Some non-office staff were furloughed, and others, of course, were laid off. My biggest fear is for the unemployment situation in autumn, but I do think the office worker aspect provides an important opportunity for a change in how society and the economy operates.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Richard Munday wrote:

    Another fine article Andy, I do not think commuteing was ever “healthy” when I used to commute by train or underground I was for ever suffering with colds, flu, and fatique as were those around me, and back in the 70s when you could smoke well that was a nightmare, and I say that as an ex smoker. I was lucky as I dumpted the rat race early on in life, in fact maybee I “opted out” of what life was supposed to be about, I remember once sitting overlooking a lake in sweeden waching the sun rise, I was broke, and just about surviveing, but give me that veiw and that situation over money, strife, and “normality” any day. I think that this virus will cause a change in our society, ideas, and insperations, we will have to sacrifice, but we will gain, I do not know what or why, or how, but a change is coming, if we refuse to reconise this change and work with it the result will be caterclismic with a death toll of 1000nds keep up the good work Andy, as I am a fan

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Richard, and to hear about how you evaded the rat race. There’s a large number of people who have, in one way or another, but they/we are not generally given much of a focus by the media establishment. I absolutely agree about the need for a major change in how we operate, and the disaster that will ensue if we don’t. Obviously, major upheaval damages people’s lives, but that’s why we also need regime change. The tired old hacks in politics have to go!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Heather Gilmore wrote:

    I think local government should set up local hubs funded through some kind of tax on companies so that people do not become isolated & so that it doesn’t cost the worker money in heating etc.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Something needs to happen, Heather. Councils will plead poverty, however, and central government won’t care, as they gear up for a new wave of austerity to pay for all the money they printed to stop the total collapse of the economy since March. My crystal ball is cloudy right now, so I can’t see the future at all. I’m just hoping it isn’t as grim as it could be …

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Tom M. Harry wrote:

    Turn it into housing, with no conditions!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Tony Sleep wrote:

    Unfortunately that is just what this Government is permitting: conversion into ‘homes’ that resemble prison cells, with no planning permission, no enforced standards, and very often no daylight. Also often no amenities like shops or schools or anything else, on industrial estates, and landlords can charge whatever they like. You wouldn’t be allowed to keep battery chickens in them.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, the proposals to scrap all planning for housing are a nightmare, Tony. I hope Johnson meets severe resistance. Simon Jenkins provides some context here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/04/boris-johnson-nimbyism-planning-changes-disastrous-england-

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Tom M. Harry wrote:

    You got any suggestion for better use? ln the light of comments above on nonreturn to offices by workers? Shall the offices just be left as a ‘legacy’ of human failure, similar to the Olympics, and whats become of that spectacle? Repeating the same, over n over …

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    I don’t have any immediate answer, Tom, but it seems pretty clear to me that tearing up all the housing regulations isn’t the right way forward. See the latest criticism here: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/aug/05/englands-planning-reforms-will-create-generation-of-slums
    I’d like the whole housing-based greed to come to an end. Maybe co-ops could take over empty office blocks …

  13. Andy Worthington says...

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Tony Sleep wrote:

    Well, yes. This country needs an immediate halt to the sale and destruction of social housing. It needs to cease the sale of homes and offices as bullion for overseas investors. It needs an enormous programme of council housing as happened in the 1930’s slum clearances, and resumed in 1945 even moreso to replace homes lost in the blitz. In the postwar period 200,000-300,000 homes were being built every year, despite the country being bankrupt. Private development was part of that. And there’s no point sticking people in substandard new slums just to save money. All that comes from that is deprivation and misery.

    Postwar all parties agreed that housing standards mattered, that a decent home was a human necessity, from which people could build a future. This didn’t happen because politicians were more enlightened, but because the public demanded it, as a whole. That doesn’t happen now because after Thatcher the orthodoxy polished divide and rule, envy and blaming others, to a razor edge that shreds community (no such thing as, etc). So it’s never the fault or responsibility of our dear leaders, it’s claimants, spongers, foreigners, Muslims, the EU etc etc. or people just being bone idle and needing to be whipped. We won’t get better governance until we get wise to this.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Well said, Tony. Sometimes, nowadays, the politicised world of our younger days seems like a dream, because the amnesia and reprogramming of the last 40 years has been so successful.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Tony Sleep wrote:

    I just want to say something that everybody knew and agreed on 50 years ago, because it has been lost – drowned in what we accept as normal, but really is an extreme ideological position we’ve just grown to accept when we shouldn’t – the fundamentalism of markets.

    Markets are great for stimulating the production of all sorts of stuff, but there are some things where they have to be limited, regulated, supplemented because otherwise they cannot work to any benign outcome.

    The problem with markets is not that they produce winners, it’s that they also, inevitably produce losers.

    Education, housing, the labour market and health were the crucial areas of this postwar consensus, because the consequences of losing in those markets was crippling or lethal.

    That is what created social housing, state education, and the NHS. Labour rates were more difficult, but there was a mechanism of arbitration in trades unions, for larger industries, that set benchmark minima that small employers had to compete with. For those who lost, there was the welfare state, to provide a safety net against permanent poverty.

    This wasn’t some deranged socialist plot, just a pragmatic recognition of realities, supported by all parties because all could see, and in many cases, remember the pre-war consequences of not doing it. It was never static, and never intended to be. It was supposed to dynamically adapt to changing conditions. It wasn’t a template for utopia, just to try and make sure as many people as possible got a chance to better themselves. It never meant that they would, it just meant there was an attempt to provide equality of opportunity.

    This was fine until politicians of the postwar generation had forgotten what their parents knew. The UK was failing. It was hugely in debt. Its industries were outdated, managements tried to carry on as if they were still an empire elite while other countries innovated and invested. The wealth it took from exploiting its colonies vanished as they demanded and got independence. The consensus was strained to breaking point. People now blame the unions, but mostly they were merely trying to maintain members living standards against rising inflation – which of course added to inflation. So it fell to Thatcher to make a new market-driven orthodoxy which would determine who would lose. And generations have been losing ever since. The price is a permanent ‘underclass’ of the young, the old, the sick, the foreign, the undereducated, unskilled and obsolete, and the WGAF attitude of the rest of us.

    I only mention this because I think it’s useful to have a clear picture of the mechanisms, of how we got where we are, and the political illusions we all live by. No disease can be treated without a good diagnosis, and unfortunately today’s politicians are almost all quacks, offering snake-oil cures that just make us sicker.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s an excellent analysis, Tony. Thanks.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    You may also like this if you haven’t seen it, Tony – it touches on some of the same important themes you discuss: https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/political-commentary/covid-19-end-of-american-era-wade-davis-1038206/

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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