Most office staff reluctant to return to public transport this year, poll finds

Experts highlight the need for a ‘genuine two-way dialogue’ with employees to allay fears around commuting to work

The majority of employees would not be comfortable returning to public transport for their commute for the rest of this year because of coronavirus, according to a survey.

Nearly nine in 10 (88 per cent) employees polled said they would not be comfortable commuting to work on public transport at all during the rest of 2020, while 55 per cent said they were generally concerned about returning to the office. 

And more than seven in 10 (71 per cent) employees said they were planning on going back to the office in a “phased, partial” manner once allowed to return. 

The poll, which surveyed a mix of 482 business leaders and employees and was conducted by Breathe, Posture People and HR Central, also found half (51 per cent) of business leaders planned to limit the number of people in the office to adhere to social distancing rules. 

Jonathan Richards, chief executive and co-founder of Breathe, said the survey presented a “worrying picture” given how reliant staff working at city-based firms in particular were on public transport. He advised employers to think carefully and strategically about maintaining remote working at least on a partial basis.

“A full return to the office may not be possible at first, so businesses looking to introduce flexibility to the office environment are implementing rota systems to manage staff coming into the workplace,” Richards said. “Whatever decisions businesses make, they must ensure they are made with their people at the core.”


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Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser at the CIPD, said it was not surprising that many people were concerned about using public transport to commute to work, “given the risk of infection from Covid-19 is as real as it ever was”.

Suff said it remained vital that employers carried out a detailed coronavirus risk assessment and implemented stringent health and safety measures when planning a return to offices. 

“Having a gradual return will enable [employers] to ensure these measures are effective, and also make the time available to communicate and consult with employees and allay any concerns they may have,” she said.

“Many [employees] will have genuine anxiety at this time, and some will have developed a mental health condition, so it's important that there is genuine two-way dialogue between individuals and their employer,” she added

The survey findings came as businesses urged the government to clarify guidance on when workers could return to offices. In an article for the Financial Times (FT), Carolyn Fairbairn, the outgoing director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said businesses now wanted greater certainty over when staff should return to offices. She said some sectors, including hospitality, could not restart business unless such workers could return. 

“There is some concern around our office-based members about when offices might be encouraged to go back to work,” Fairbairn said. “Although we know that offices can work from home, we are increasingly hearing from firms who are saying that they have people who want to go back.”

But government officials told the FT it was unlikely there would be any major changes to the overall guidance on when workers could return to offices before early September. They said there remained fears about a surge in workers using public transport if the rules were relaxed too early, and that enduring issues around childcare and shielding were still unresolved. 

Current government guidelines state that people who are able to do so should work from home. These have remained unchanged during the easing of other lockdown restrictions over recent weeks.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), published on 3 July, found nearly half (49 per cent) of working adults in the UK had travelled to work at some point in the past seven days, up from 44 per cent the previous week. At the same time, the ONS found an increasing number of adults were moving away from exclusively working at home, with the percentage of Brits doing so dropping from 33 per cent to 29 per cent. 

Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory at Peninsula, said employers must now more than ever be willing to be flexible. “The coronavirus situation is not over, and returning to full normality may not be an option for a company for some time, if ever,” she said.

“How employers manage staff returning to work is likely to be crucial for the ongoing employment relationship,” Palmer explained. “After all, employees may have valid reasons for wanting to avoid busy public transport routes, especially if they’ve been successfully working remotely for the last three months or feel they are more at risk from the virus.”

She advised HR to listen to staff and be open to alternatives such as staggering shifts to avoid busy commutes: “Being willing to listen and offer flexibility may be a key aspect of ensuring the safe, secure and productive return of the workforce post lockdown.”