Half of Brits now travelling to work despite lockdown restrictions, official figures show

ONS data reveals more people are commuting to their workplace compared to the first wave of coronavirus, with a third still working exclusively from home

More people are travelling to work now than during the first wave of coronavirus, according to the latest statistics from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), prompting concerns that social isolation and fears for job security could be preventing people able to work from home from doing so.

The official figures show that in the week ending 17 January, almost half (48 per cent) of UK workers had travelled to work during the preceding seven days, while just over a third (35 per cent) of people worked exclusively from home.

By comparison, in mid-May 2020 just 35 per cent of adults in employment had travelled to work in the last seven days, including 26 per cent who had exclusively travelled to their workplace and 9 per cent who had both worked from home and travelled to work. Another 36 per cent had only worked from home.

Sally-Ann Hall-Jones, CEO of Reality HR, cautioned that the rise in the number of people heading into the workplace didn’t necessarily mean the coronavirus guidance was being ignored. “One possible factor is that many businesses have now adapted their workplaces to become Covid safe, for instance by changing the layouts of offices and changing working patterns to enable people who cannot work from home to work safely,” she said.

But, Hall-Jones warned: “It’s vital employers remember they should not be bringing employees back to the office if they are able to work from home, regardless of whether the workplace is Covid secure.”

Sir Cary Cooper, president of the CIPD and professor of health and organisational psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School, suggested two reasons why more people who are able to work from home might be heading into the workplace. Employees facing job insecurity could be wanting to show their bosses commitment, while many employees may simply be missing the social aspect of work.

Get more HR and employment law news like this delivered straight to your inbox every day – sign up to People Management’s PM Daily newsletter

“People don’t want to be made redundant when government support is pulled so are wanting to be present,” Cooper explained. “And as well as worrying about their jobs they’re missing the social contact.”

Helen Astill, managing director of Cherington HR, agreed that fatigue from working from home and the social isolation this causes could be behind the numbers, “particularly [for those who] don’t have the space or home environment to work productively in”, she said.

As an increasing number of employers outline plans to make home working a more permanent option, Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, said more employers would need to ensure these policies didn’t adversely affect the mental health of staff who struggle to work in isolation.

Hannah Slaughter, economist at the Resolution Foundation, added to that warning: “Remote working is nether viable, nor desirable, for all workers. Lower-paid workers in particular are less able to work at home – and this shouldn’t be forgotten.”

And Dr Na Fu, associate professor at Trinity Business School, said employers needed to prioritise “people's feelings, experience, wellbeing” when managing the workforce through the pandemic.

“We are human beings and need to work for the better,” she told People Management. “The survey results reveal continued low-level wellbeing among people. This is very worrying for employers as well as for our society. How to reboot our confidence and wellbeing in the post-covid time is to be discussed.”