On mild Thursday evening, workers in office clothes take to the sidewalks of bars, pubs and restaurants in central London. They are part of a new trend in the world of flexible working: Thursday is the new Friday.
Office staff are increasingly returning to their downtown office, but only for part of the week. Many choose to travel to their place of work during the “core” days in the middle of the week – Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday – reserving the working week at home.
The popularity of Thursday night socializing with colleagues has not gone unnoticed by hotel business bosses.
“In terms of the pattern in cities, Mondays tend to be quieter, Fridays tend to be quieter, Thursdays very loud,” said Phil Urban, managing director of pub and restaurant group Mitchells & Butlers. “While suburban trade is still doing well, people who would have had a meal or a pint closer to home are doing so in London.”
The company’s downtown locations — which include the O’Neill’s and All Bar One chains — are gradually getting busier, Urban said, which he attributed to the slow but steady return of workers.
“It continues to strengthen, and it is partly the offices that are shrinking. I think the services will continue to go from three days to four days. I travel inside and outside [of London], and at my station, I have trouble parking again. This is the first time I can say that in two years,” he said.
Covid-19 has caused two years of shutdown restrictions for office-based businesses and their employees, who have been repeatedly told by the government to work from home and then urged to return to their desks.
After lockdowns were lifted, many companies advertised perks to entice their employees to return, including unlimited hot drinks, free breakfasts or company-branded products.
Despite these incentives, the return to the office has been a trickle rather than a flood. Midweek tube passenger numbers remain at 70 per cent of pre-Covid levels, according to Transport for London.
However, Thursday is shaping up to be the most popular day to work alongside colleagues, according to TfL figures. Nearly 3 million metro journeys were made on Thursday, May 12, the highest number since the start of the pandemic.
The trickle rather than the influx of people means the bakery chain Greggs, for example, is still seeing sales 10% below pre-Covid levels at its city center outlets as well as those near offices .
London Mayor Sadiq Khan has called for more investment in the capital’s public transport to bring office workers back on the go.
The slow return can be partly attributed to the success of remote working during the pandemic. Since the lifting of restrictions, many of the UK’s largest office occupants – including accountancy firm Deloitte and its 20,000 UK staff, and most of the NatWest Group banking firm’s 64,000 staff – have moved to a hybrid model, allowing staff to divide their time between their corporate building and another location.
It increasingly looks like hybrid working is here to stay. A quarter of workers (24%) split their time between home and the office in May, according to the latest Office for National Statistics survey, up from 13% in early February.
Workers cited a better work-life balance as the main benefit of working from home to some extent, while around half of hybrid workers said they had fewer distractions at home, and a similar number said working from home improved their well-being.
A tight labor market, in which workers can choose jobs, has given employees more leverage in this negotiation. Employers who offer hybrid work to their teams are also likely to enjoy higher returns, according to Heejung Chung, professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Kent.
“We’re seeing more and more evidence that working from home will be helpful for productivity,” she said, adding that workers particularly valued the ability to ditch the commute at a time of rising costs.
Not having to go to the office every day “saves workers time and money, which shows that they are giving back to their employers productivity gains when working from home”, he said. she declared.
Chung, author of The Paradox of Flexibility, a book on flexible working, believes that some degree of remote working is here to stay.
“We will see companies asking workers to come back more often, but will the office five days a week be normal again? Absolutely not,” she said. “The genie is out of the bottle and it will not go back.”
Yet this newfound flexibility poses challenges for downtown businesses, from sandwich shops to dry cleaners, whose business previously depended on a steady stream of office workers five days a week.
This may partly explain the recent political interventions in the debate on working from home. Boris Johnson recently called on workers to return to the office, saying it made people “more productive”.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the efficiency minister, drew criticism after leaving what were seen as passive-aggressive notes on the desks of officials who were out of office when he visited.
Ministerial demands notwithstanding, the return of offices appears to be accelerating as workers attend more in-person meetings. Office occupancy in the UK hit its highest level since the start of the pandemic in the week ending May 13, according to the latest data from Remit Consulting, a management consultancy specializing in office space. real estate.
The average weekly office occupancy rate reached almost 28% in the UK and exceeded 29% in London that week, the highest recorded in the past year, according to data from the systems of entrance to big city office buildings.
However, this means that office occupancy remains at around half the average level seen before the pandemic. Again, the busiest days of the week remain Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Remit found.
Despite concerns about what this means for the future of offices, rental in London is booming, according to recent updates from office owners Land Securities and British Land.
“We’ve had the best year for lettings in London in 10 years,” said British Land chief executive Simon Carter, adding that companies were looking for office space with natural light and outdoor terraces, and were demanding sustainable energy. – efficient buildings.
Location is also important, Carter said: “I think there has been a trend towards more central locations because if people are going to come into the office three or four days a week but live more spread out across the UK , they want an office that’s closer to a major transportation hub.
British Land has three ‘campuses’ in London which include office buildings, surrounding retail and hospitality facilities and account for two-thirds of its property portfolio. Even he admits that the post-pandemic world of work will be different from what came before.
“Our general view is that London will need less space due to working from home, but it will need better space,” Carter said. “And that’s what we see in our rental business.”