Fewer than one-in-five office workers in the UK have returned to city centre workplaces since restrictions were relaxed, reflecting both summer vacations and a reluctance to commute.
Just 18 per cent of people in the UK’s 31 largest cities have returned to their normal workplace, the Centre for Cities research group said, citing analysis of mobile phone location data. Daytime worker footfall fell by 1 per cent during the final week of July when most Covid-19 rules were dropped. The group doesn’t expect footfall to pick up before September.
The figures indicate headwinds facing restaurants and retailers that depend on office workers, adding to evidence of slower momentum in consumer-facing parts of the economy that enjoyed a quick spurt of growth when lockdowns eased.
“Companies may well have found that it was pointless to encourage people to come back to work because of the holiday period,” Paul Swinney, director of research for the Centre for Cities, said in an interview. He noted fears about being “pinged” and told to isolate by the official test-and-trace app may have contributed to employee caution.
Some companies such as the financial adviser Perella Weinberg Partners have delayed their return to office plans because of the Delta variant of the virus and there’s a growing acceptance among businesses of a permanent shift to remote working.
In a separate report, the Resolution Foundation found areas reliant on commuters had lagged behind popular holiday destinations in the labour market recovery. Jobs in popular holiday spots such as Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly are already at or above pre-pandemic levels for employment, while London is languishing at more than 3 per cent below.
“A structural shift to more home-working or less commuting could have a lasting impact on the geography of the UK labour market,” Charlie McCurdy, a Resolution Foundation economist, wrote.
Mr Swinney said government ministers will need to take a firmer stance in favour of office working before more people return because “it’s difficult for individual business to stick their head above the parapet” and impose the change on staff.