Majority of public in favour of continued home working, poll finds

Business groups warn city centres could become ‘ghost towns’ without support of offices as survey reveals most Brits are against encouraging a return to the workplace

The majority of Brits do not agree that businesses should encourage employees working from home to return to the office, a poll has found.

The YouGov survey of 2,592 British adults found just under a third (31 per cent) thought that businesses who have had staff working from home during the coronavirus outbreak should now start asking them to return to the office. In comparison, 41 per cent of respondents said workers should not be encouraged to return, while 22 per cent said they were unsure.

The poll found this sentiment was stronger among younger workers; 54 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds and 52 per cent of 25 to 49 year olds said workers should not be encouraged to return to the workplace, compared to just 26 and 25 per cent respectively who said they should.

Among those aged 50 to 64, just under half (45 per cent) said employees should not be encouraged back to the office, with 32 per cent saying they should.

The over-65s were the only group more in favour of a return to the workplace – 44 per cent said employees should be encouraged back, with 35 per cent saying they shouldn’t.

The figures come a day after Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), urged UK businesses to bring staff back to the office or risk turning commercial centres into “ghost towns”.

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“The UK’s offices are vital drivers of our economy. They support thousands of local firms, from dry cleaners to sandwich bars… Some of our busiest city centres resemble ghost towns, missing the usual bustle of passing trade,” she said.

Acknowledging the success that most firms have seen in implementing remote working, Fairbairn said there were numerous downsides that employers needed to contend with: “For young people, learning face to face in the workplace is an unbeatable way to build skills and confidence. We must not deprive the next generation of this opportunity.”

She added that not everyone had the space to work effectively at home, and not everyone had a job they could do from home, and warned of a “new divide in our society” between those who can and can’t work from home.

Fairbairn’s comments were largely in line with those of the government, which has been encouraging employers to bring their staff back to the workplace.

However, in an unexpected intervention yesterday, health secretary Matt Hancock admitted he did not know how many of his staff at the Department for Health and Social Care were working from home, and that all that mattered was that they remained productive.

Speaking on Times Radio, Hancock said: “What I care about is how effectively people work and obviously people should come back to the office if that is what they need to do their job.”

Hancock said it was up to employers to make sure their workplaces were Covid secure – something he said his department had done – but went on to add: “What I care about is that people perform and so the people I work with, some of them have been working from home, some come in sometimes, some are in full-time, and what matters to me is that they deliver and, frankly, they’ve been delivering at an unbelievable rate.”