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Why Boris’s back to work drive is doomed to failure

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Some 518,000 people would commute to the Square Mile on a normal day before the coronavirus devastated Britain’s economy – and potentially altered the nation’s working habits for good.  

The streets of the City of London are still deserted a week after Boris Johnson‘s call for workers to return to their offices – with ten of the top firms in the Square Mile saying they will only bring back 20 per cent or fewer of their employees.

But even if the social distancing rules were relaxed many doubt London’s white collar commuter army will ever return.

While millions of workers have got used to working from home and, as polls show, have no desire to return to the commuting rat-race as we knew it before, their bosses are in no hurry to make them.

Many businesses have been amazed how well working from home has gone and have figured out they could save millions of pounds by making it a permanent part of their business, especially when it can cost up to £60,000 a year to maintain just one work station in London.

Unfortunately that promises to be a disaster for commercial landlords, the staff who secure, clean and maintain the buildings  as well as the businesses in  the cities  that rely  on office workers eating, drinking and  shopping  on the  way to and from work and during their lunch-hours. 

The lack of commuters is also a disaster for Transport for London, which operates the Underground and buses in the City,  and would see a precipitous plunge in revenues if it continues. 

Sadiq Khan has already had to secure a £1.6billion bailout for TfL from Boris Johnson’s government after the coronavirus lockdown reduced its revenues by 90% and the London Mayor said it was on the brink of going ‘bust’  

Fares are already set to go up next year, and fewer workers coming in could mean more fare increases or hikes to the congestion charge to make up the shortfall. 

Chris Biggs, founder and managing director of Theta Financial Reporting, said the working from home genie had now been let out of the bottle – and could not be put back.

He told the MailOnline: ‘I think it’s a bit of a watershed moment. From an employee’s point of view they might not feel safe going back into the office.

‘I have spoken to people from big firms who don’t want to go back. I know there are businesses that have said they are not going back until 2021 and I know some that will now have working from home permanently.

“I don’t think management thought systems would work as well from home as they have. Now they know it’s possible. I know myself when I was commuting in previously it is packed and cramped – who will want to do that without a vaccine?’ 

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Deserted: The Square Mile stands empty (right) on a weekday afternoon with office workers staying away from their desks. The picture on the left shows how busy it used to be at a comparable time. All the following pictures were taken early afternoon this week

Road to nowhere: City of London streets remain empty of commuters and vehicles as travel is down nearly 60 per cent

Road to nowhere: City of London streets remain empty of commuters and vehicles as travel is down nearly 60 per cent

Road to nowhere: City of London streets remain empty of commuters and vehicles as travel is down nearly 60 per cent

Leadenhall Market was bustling with visitors during the week pre-coronavirus, but now lies completely empty

Leadenhall Market was bustling with visitors during the week pre-coronavirus, but now lies completely empty

Leadenhall Market was bustling with visitors during the week pre-coronavirus, but now lies completely empty

A Usually-packed commuter belt city Winchester railway station car park lay empty this morning, illustrating how few workers were going in. The 647-space railway car parks, which are full to bursting in normal times as affluent commuters drive in from the picturesque villages nearby, held only about 100 cars.

A Usually-packed commuter belt city Winchester railway station car park lay empty this morning, illustrating how few workers were going in. The 647-space railway car parks, which are full to bursting in normal times as affluent commuters drive in from the picturesque villages nearby, held only about 100 cars.

A Usually-packed commuter belt city Winchester railway station car park lay empty this morning, illustrating how few workers were going in. The 647-space railway car parks, which are full to bursting in normal times as affluent commuters drive in from the picturesque villages nearby, held only about 100 cars. 

How many employees are top City firms bringing back to work? 

Goldman Sachs: 900 out of 5,000 – 18%

RBS/ Natwest: 350 out of 3,500 – 10%

Amazon:  500 out of 5,000 

Baker McKenzie 13 out of 1,000 1.3%

JP Morgan – 15% 

Deloitte – 20% 

Standard Chartered – 10% 

KPMG – 5%  

Deutsche Bank –  10%

London Stock Exchange – Handful of staff  

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Richard Lim, chief executive of Retail Economics, said bosses would weigh up whether the supposed productivity boost outweighed the savings which many have enjoyed during the pandemic.

Explaining the mindset of such firms, Mr Lim said: ‘We probably don’t need the same amount of space as we did, out of necessity we managed to pivot our working way towards something which is much more digital focused and actually, given that rents are so expensive, if we have people coming in on average two-and-a-half days a week and people working from home two-and-a half days a week, we don’t need the space and it’ll make a significant saving for many companies.’

One employee at a central London firm which has over 200 staff told MailOnline ‘the primary concern is that we don’t need to be back so why rush?’   

Retail business in the City report that their footfall has dropped by up to 95 per cent and construction workers in hard hats still outnumber men in suits by at least 20 to one. 

A MailOnline investigation reveals one law firm that usually has 1,000 people working has just 13 staff in and expects that to rise to 250 by September, while top firms including Goldman Sachs, Standard Chartered and Deloitte will not rise above 20 per cent of their headcount. 

The figures illustrates the scale of the challenge facing Boris Johnson, who wants city centre office workers to return and start pumping money into Britain’s retail and service sectors. 

They face an implosion if workers stay at home and do not start spending money in shops, cafes and restaurants – while financial and other businesses face a less serious threat from continued home working. 

Today, a separate poll of 7,400 firms by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) found that almost three in ten expect to decrease their workforce before the furlough scheme ends in October. A similar proportion (28 per cent) have already laid off staff since the lockdown began. 

The City’s power house firms say they want to return to their Square Mile headquarters to work more productively, but lack the space to accommodate their employees while maintaining social distancing. 

The lack of City workers is clearly laid out in commuter belt city Winchester in Hampshire,where the 647-space railway car park – usually packed with vehicles – held just 100.

After speaking to businesses and experts in the Square Mile, MailOnline can reveal: 

  • Standard Chartered, Royal Bank of Scotland and Amazon have only brought up to ten per cent of staff back
  • Huge accountancy firm KPMG have only brought back 5% of their staff, while Deloitte has returned 20%
  • Goldman Sachs have returned 15 per cent of their staff to work in London, against 35 per cent in Europe 
  • Amazon staff can stay home until October, while one law firm hopes to get 25 per cent back in September 
  • Smaller businesses giving services and goods to office workers say they have lost over 80 per cent of trade 
  • London Stock Exchange is still largely empty and has majority of its usual personnel still working from home
  • Thousands of City of London bankers still not back in their plush offices as streets and blocks lay desolate
  •  Commuter trends show travel in the City is way down nearly 60 per cent lower than pre-Covid-19 levels
  • Restaurants – including bearing famous chefs’ names – are among food outlets that are still closed 

Companies across the country are constrained by a lack of space and can only bring a fraction of their headcount back into the office if they are to keep social distancing between workers.

The knock-on effect is that cafes, pubs and shops that rely on office staff footfall are worried they will be driven out of business.

Even the world-famous London Stock Exchange stands deserted, with only a ‘minority’ of staff allowed back in. 

Companies say they want to follow Government guidance to re-open but have to protect their workers and obey coronavirus social distancing rules. 

Everyone wants to come back into the office, almost every business works better when staff are physically together – especially where finance is involved But the truth is, coronavirus social-distancing rules mean it is impossible to achieve. 

One Square Mile business worker, who would not be identified for fear of repercussions, told the MailOnline: ‘Everyone wants to come back into the office, almost every business works better when staff are physically together – especially where finance is involved

‘But the truth is, coronavirus social-distancing rules mean it is impossible to achieve.

‘Either the science or government guidance needs to change or the situation will just stay the same.’

The City is the UK’s most important financial sector and provides nearly ten per cent of all UK GDP and 11.5 per cent of total tax revenue. 

But commuting trends show it is still 56 per cent down in the capital, spelling out just how many people are still staying at home. 

At The Regis snack bar, directly opposite the all steel constructed Lloyds Building, business had all but ground to a halt. 

Server Malak Ben said: ‘At least 80 per cent of the people who come into the shop work at Lloyds.

‘Those people who have been coming in have told us they will not open properly until at least September, and even then not fully back to staff until the New Year.

‘We would serve 150 people a day and now it is about 15-20’ 

‘Before coronavirus there were five of us working in the shop, and now there are two. We would serve 150 people a day and now it is about 15 to 20. It is not a good situation.’

Alex Wilkins and Lee Bainbridge were hurrying through the market to a meeting with clients.

They work for an office management company that is responsible for 70 buildings in the city and admitted most were now empty or partially used. ‘I would say less than a quarter of staff are back at work,’ said Mr Wilkins.

Those workers who have returned to their desks say they are separated by plastic screen and always must maintain social distancing.

‘It is quite depressing really and not that enjoyable,’ said one man named only as James who works for an insurance broker.

‘In my section there should be 11 people but there are just the two of us. We have been told there is no rush to get people back in as the work can be carried out at home.

‘I like coming to the office, to meet friends and socialise but it has become a boring job.’

The banks of empty offices echoing around the Square Mile give one possible explanation for the sudden drop-off. 

Goldman Sach’s Plumtree Court base usually has around 5,000 workers in its offices, but only 900 are in – just 20 per cent of capacity. 

The story is similar in Standard Chartered’s Basinghall Avenue headquarters, which only has ten per cent of staff back.

Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon told staff last night: ‘ We’re also making progress in Europe where on the continent, 35 per cent returned; and in the UK, where approximately 15 per cent of our employees are back in office.

‘We are taking many new precautions to ensure safety, including through masks and social distancing, and it’s certainly not business as usual, but we’re making tangible forward progress.

The Regis Snack bar's Malik Ben said trade was down 80 per cent because office workers were not at desks to buy lunch

The Regis Snack bar's Malik Ben said trade was down 80 per cent because office workers were not at desks to buy lunch

Businesswoman Zdenka Trutzova said her Square Mile salon is on the brink of bankruptcy

Businesswoman Zdenka Trutzova said her Square Mile salon is on the brink of bankruptcy

Regis Snack bar’s Malik Ben said trade was down 80 per cent and salon owner Zdenka Trutzova said she  faces bankruptcy

Rows of empty desks in the Amazon HQ could be clearly seen from the roadside as around 500 were inside the building

Rows of empty desks in the Amazon HQ could be clearly seen from the roadside as around 500 were inside the building

Rows of empty desks in the Amazon HQ could be clearly seen from the roadside as around 500 were inside the building

Work spaces in the office have been abandoned by staff who have been told they can stay at home to do their jobs

Work spaces in the office have been abandoned by staff who have been told they can stay at home to do their jobs

Work spaces in the office have been abandoned by staff who have been told they can stay at home to do their jobs

A handful of pedestrians - most of them construction workers - were seen walking round the Square Mile in the City

A handful of pedestrians - most of them construction workers - were seen walking round the Square Mile in the City

A handful of pedestrians – most of them construction workers – were seen walking round the Square Mile in the City

‘As we take these steps, we will continue to keep the health and safety of our people as our top priority.’

And Deloitte’s Hill House building – one of six reopened on July 6 – is also running at up to just 20 per cent capacity.

A spokesperson for the audit firm explained: ‘The health and safety of our people and clients has remained a priority throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and in developing our return to workplace strategy.

‘Deloitte has long been a proponent of agile working and we have had 20,000 people working from home safely and securely since mid-March.

‘We opened a small number of offices across the UK. These offices have been made available to improve the health and wellbeing for our people where circumstance means they cannot work from home. All of our open offices comply with government guidelines and social distancing measures in order to provide our people with a safe working environment.’

Deutsche Bank say less than ten per cent will be invited back in, but could split their time between there and home.

And Natwest and RBS’s Bishopsgate base which has 3,500 desks has less than ten per cent of staff in.

Even online giant Amazon – a company who has enjoyed high sales during the pandemic – has less than ten per cent staff in its Principal Place building on the border of the City. 

At online giant Amazon, all staff who are able to work from home will continue to do so until October 2 when the situation will be reviewed.

A handful of staff entered and left the company’s HQ during the lunchtime period but were outnumbered by security guards in the lobby.

Row upon row of empty desks were visible in the glass fronted building on the edge of the city in Spittalfields.

Another firm said it was operating at just five per cent in its office to make sure its staff were safe from coronavirus.

Company that manages 70 buildings says most are empty or partially used   

Some companies have been barely able to open their offices at all. 

Lawyers Baker Mackenzie, who can fit 1,000 people into their premises, are currently looking to gradually reopen in September.  

Joanna Ludlam, partner in the Dispute Resolution team, told the MailOnline: ‘Since lockdown we have maintained a skeleton staff in the building.

It’s a core team of 13 who come in three days a week to maintain postal, admin and collection requirements.

‘To make the building safe for our staff, initially we will only have capacity for around 25 per cent of our people at any one time, so it won’t be a return to pre-COVID times just yet.’

Celebrity chef Gino D’Acampo’s pasta restaurant was among businesses still closed along with The Tortilla Grill, Brokes Wine bar and The Lamb Tavern.

‘I like coming to the office, to meet friends and socialise but it has become a boring job. 

A sign in the window of clothing store Oliver Sweeney said they were now permanently shut. 

In the deserted Leadenhall market hairdresser Zdenka Trutzova said her salon was on the brink of bankruptcy.

She said she is lucky to see one customer a day at her salon called Daniels. 

Amazon's office on the border of the City of London stood nearly empty with staff at home until at least October

Amazon's office on the border of the City of London stood nearly empty with staff at home until at least October

Amazon’s office on the border of the City of London stood nearly empty with staff at home until at least October

Mobility data shows how many people are missing from the City of London even though lockdown has been eased

Mobility data shows how many people are missing from the City of London even though lockdown has been eased

Mobility data shows how many people are missing from the City of London even though lockdown has been eased

Official figures showed GDP grew by 1.8 per cent in May, although it is still nearly a quarter lower than before the draconian coronavirus restrictions were imposed. In this chart 100 represents the size of the economy in 2016

‘Before all the offices closed I would have between 15-20 customers a day.

‘It is a disaster and unless the office workers come back soon I will have to close.

‘The rents in the market are so high and I will struggle to pay them. I think Leadenhall Market will be finished. 

‘It is so sad. I have worked for 10 years to build up the business.’

At a Holland and Barrett health food store they would 300 people a day but now just 60 people pop in. 

The scale of the drop off in foot traffic for cafes and restaurants was made clear by staff at a nearby Joe The Juice café.

One staff member said before the Covid-19 crisis they would serve 300 people an hour during the lunch period.

Since offices closed they now see less than 30 people a day. 

‘It is awful, but we have continued to work and rely a lot on deliveries to offices. We talk to customers and they say they will not be coming back until at least September or even later.’

Tailor Tim Howard was one of the few men in a shirt and tie and was tie hurrying to an appointment with a client.

His company Tom James Tailoring makes bespoke suits and he has been keeping appointments with those who have returned to work.

‘Obviously it is still very quiet, but I have an appointment today with a client,’ he said.

‘The people I talk to want to come back to work, but that is up to their bosses.

‘Hopefully people will start to come back in the next couple of weeks.’

According to many small business owners around The City, less than ten per cent of office workers have returned.

Commuter city’s car park is down over 70 per cent in lockdown as business workers stay away

In Winchester, a commuter belt hub where standard class railway season tickets cost up to £6,372 a year, the station was all but deserted last night.

The 647-space railway car parks, which are full to bursting in normal times as affluent commuters drive in from the picturesque villages nearby, held only about 100 cars.

An annual parking permit costs up to £552. From the start of the lockdown in mid-March, South Western Railway received 36,269 refund requests for season tickets, causing the company losses of hundreds of thousands of pounds as veteran commuters opted to work from home.

Winchester railway station car park was practically empty on a weekday evening, when it would usually be packed

Winchester railway station car park was practically empty on a weekday evening, when it would usually be packed

Winchester railway station car park was practically empty on a weekday evening, when it would usually be packed 

Matthew Hill, 52, a management consultant at Winchester railway station

Matthew Hill, 52, a management consultant at Winchester railway station

Ian Dickson, 37, at Winchester railway station

Ian Dickson, 37, at Winchester railway station

Matthew Hill, 52, and Ian Dickson, 37, were two of the rare commuters using the train station, which serves the City 

But the trains are still running, and some workers who have to attend their offices are making use of the services.

‘I’ve been commuting for the last two months and the trains are still empty,’ said Ian Dickson, 37, an air traffic controller at Farnborough Airport.

‘It is busier than it was, but there’s still only two or three people on the carriage with me, so it’s easy to observe social distance.

‘I go up to Manchester on the weekends to see my family, and those routes are a lot busier. It’s really the commuting that has stopped.

‘From Monday to Friday, it feels like you’re on a ghost train and the stations are deserted, too. Most of the little shops for buying newspapers and things are shuttered.

‘On the whole, life feels like it’s getting back to normal, but that’s not the case on the trains. It’s as if commuting is behind the curve compared to the rest of the economy.’

A longtime fan of the Brompton folding bike immortalised by the hit BBC comedy W1A, Mr Dickson said that he was no longer having to use the collapsible function as the trains were so empty.

‘There’s acres of space,’ he said. ‘I just wheel my bike on and lean it against the seats. No problem. But it does feel like there’s no point in having it. I could just use a normal bike.

‘It’s been nice in a way,’ he added. ‘It’s quite relaxing to sit and read your book first thing in the morning, with nobody to disturb you. No snoring or arguing, and nobody crammed in around you.’

How many jobs are at risk across the UK?

  • Accenture – 900
  • Airbus – 1,700 
  • Arcadia – 500
  • BA – 12,000 
  • Beales – 1,052 
  • Bentley – 1,000
  • Burger King – 1,600 
  • Casual Dining Group (Bella Italia, Cafe Rouge and Las Iguanas) – 1,900  
  • DHL at Jaguar Land Rover – 2,200 
  • EasyJet – 4,500
  • Go Outdoors – 2,400 
  • Harrods – 700
  • Harveys – 240 
  • Links – 350 
  • Mothercare – 2,500 
  • Oasis Warehouse – 1,800 
  • P&O Ferries – 1,100 
  • Pret a Manger – 1,330 
  • Ryanair – 3,000 
  • SSP Group (Upper Crust, Caffe Ritazza) – 5,000
  • Ted Baker – 160 
  • TM Lewin – 600
  • Tui – 8,000 
  • Victoria’s Secret – 800 at risk

 

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Matthew Hill, 52, a management consultant who used to commute to London four days a week but who has been working from home since the beginning of lockdown, agreed – though he said that commuting had become ‘a bit creepy’.

‘It’s a bit boring, to be honest,’ he said. ‘I just fall asleep. There’s nobody to talk to or look at. Sometimes you look around and wonder if you’ve slipped into a Stephen King story.’

Yesterday was the first time that Mr Hill had braved the trains for work in four months. ‘It was not as I’d expected,’ he said.

‘During lockdown, it’s like being stuck in a bubble. It’s been really hard to relate to the deaths and carnage that have been taking place elsewhere in the country, and difficult to really feel the economic shock in the service industry, for example.

‘I thought that getting back on the trains would bring me more in touch with frontline workers and people who have been suffering this thing in different ways. But there’s just nobody about.’

He added: ‘At the same time, it does bring it home on another level. The damage this is doing to the companies that rely on commuters, from train firms to shops, is tremendous.

‘Nobody really wants to go back to the crowded stations we used to have for quite some time.’

Employment figures nationwide also paint an alarming picture of work in Britain post-coronavirus lockdown. 

Figures released today show the number of people with jobs fell by another 74,000 last month with 2.6million on benefits.

Some 650,000 fewer are on the payroll than before the crisis, according to official figures.

Vacancies are at a record low and hours have also tumbled, the Office for National Statistics data show. The claimant count has risen by 112.2 per cent, or 1.4million, since March.

Some 650,000 fewer are on the payroll than before the crisis, according to official figures

Some 650,000 fewer are on the payroll than before the crisis, according to official figures

Some 650,000 fewer are on the payroll than before the crisis, according to official figures

A separate survey by the British Chambers of Commerce has also found that a third of firms are planning to lay off staff over the next three months.

Pay has also been hit hard, dropping 0.3 per cent in the three months to May compared to the same period last year. Accounting for inflation, that is equivalent to a 1.3 per cent reduction.

Jonathan Athow, deputy national statistician at the Office for National Statistics (ONS), said: ‘As the pandemic took hold, the labour market weakened markedly, but that rate of decline slowed into June, though this is before recent reports of job losses.

‘There are now almost two-thirds of a million fewer employees on the payroll than before the lockdown, according to the latest tax data.

‘The Labour Force Survey is showing only a small fall in employment, but shows a large number of people who report working no hours and getting no pay.’

He added: ‘There are now far more out-of-work people who are not looking for a job than before the pandemic.’

The total number of hours worked in the UK hit a record low in March-May, according to the latest figures

DailyMail Online


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