In Depth

Why British workers are the least keen in Europe to return to the office

UK lagging behind European counterparts in the race to get back to the workplace

Workers in the UK are returning to their offices at a far slower pace than those in other European countries, new research has revealed.

Only 34% of UK employees have gone back to the office, lagging behind the rest of Europe which averages 68%, AlphaWise, the research arm of US bank Morgan Stanley, has found.

In particular, Germany, Italy and Spain have seen return rates of around three-quarters, while France leads the way on 83%.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson formally scrapped the government’s work from home advice last week and is encouraging employers to begin bringing staff back. So why, as the Daily Mail puts it, is the UK the “scared man of Europe”?

What do the figures show?

Of the major economies in Europe, French and Italian companies have “led the charge in bringing their teams back to the workplace”, with the figures revealing that 83% of French office staff have returned, followed by 76% in Italy, The Guardian reports. 

Daily Mail polling found that across 30 of Britain’s biggest firms, just 53,000 staff members plan on going back to the office soon, out of a pool of 320,000. However, Morgan Stanley’s analysis found that Britons who have returned to their offices are doing so for more days a week than continental rivals. 

Almost half (46%) of UK workers who have returned are working at least five days a week from their office, compared to only 15% of employees in France and 19% of staff in Germany.

Why are most Brits hesitant?

The Times says the figures “will be a concern to the government”, which has been trying to encourage workers to return to offices, in part to help struggling city centre economies. 

On 1 August, the prime minister ended the government’s “work from home” guidance saying decisions should be made at the “discretion” of employers rather than employees.

However, some research has suggested that the coronavirus has changed the landscape of working life in the UK so dramatically that some workers believe it will never go back to normal

A study by O2 Business and YouGov revealed that changes in commuting routines appear to be the biggest factor.

Almost half (45%) of Brits believe lockdown will change their company’s approach to flexible working long-term, with money saved on commuting topping the reasons why people would be hesitant to return to the office.

A third of employees (30%) said they wanted to reduce commute spending by working from home, 23% chose to work flexibly as they find travelling a waste of time, and 17% said they find commuting stressful.

Companies also cite “uncertainty about asking their employees to use public transport and the need for childcare during school summer holidays” as reasons to extend home working until September, The Guardian says.

On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, chief executive of British Land Chris Grigg claimed many businesses may not return to the office until next year, if at all.

“I don’t think we are going to see an instantaneous return and I think we are going to see a big variety,” he said. “We are talking to some people who want most, if not all of their people back but in September, which seems to be a key time.

“But others are going to wait longer I think, throughout the rest of the year and in some cases into early next.”

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