Business

London bosses appeal to Government to make commuters feel safe returning to the office

London bosses today called on the Government to help make commuters feel safe to return to the office, as workers remain reluctant to take public transport.

The Government message on how to encourage workers back to city centres is understood to be developing and bosses have urged Westminster to make it clear that public transport is safe.

Advertising tycoon Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of digital firm S4 Capital, told the Standard: “There needs to be a campaign to encourage people back to using public transport, to change people’s minds and tell them public transport is in fact safe.”

“You have a contradiction which is the congestion charge being hiked while telling people not to use public transport and then telling people to walk and cycle but not everyone can practically do that.”

Sir Martin said a freeze or reduction in rail fares would help spur workers back to the office. “You need to have an economic incentive. It’s a combination of price and message.”

Hugh Osmond, the restaurants entrepreneur who built up the PizzaExpress chain, said: “My message is come back to work. I’m not a believer in remote working. There are some things you can do remotely but in a lot of cases people think they are being productive at home on Zoom but they are not.”

Mark Read, the chief executive of advertising giant WPP, said the company was comfortable with remote working, but added: “The younger high-fliers are keen to come back.

“We need to provide people with a reason to come back in, there is no point coming in to do video calls with people at home. It’s going to take great confidence in our transport system and testing regime.”

“Clearly the current pattern is not sustainable long term. As the children go back to school, more people will be able to get back to the office. By winter we need to make sure the transport system is safe and that we have a test and trace system which is as effective as possible.”

Alistair Cox, chief executive of Hays, one of the country’s biggest recruiters, said: “The big challenge is public transport…

“Not everybody has a working from home environment that is productive or aids their mental health. Home working isn’t always possible. The main challenge is people becoming more comfortable travelling on the Tube. When it becomes clear it is safe to do so, that will be the catalyst.

Approaches to returning staff to the office have varied. State-backed lender RBS has told staff to work from home until 2021. Goldman Sachs this week sent invitations to hundreds of senior staff offering incentives such as free food, equipment to protect them for the spread of Covid-19 and access to its on-site nursery.

Chris Ireland, UK chief executive at property agent JLL, which has 15 offices in London, said: “Many businesses like ours have realised that working remotely on a large scale can be effective.” But he added: “Just because some work can be done remotely does not mean that it will yield the highest level of productivity.”

Britain’s productivity levels have long been a source of anguish among economists and, with the country in recession, ministers will be keen to boost it.

Peter Jackson, boss of Paddy Power owner Flutter Entertainment, said: “We have been able to achieve more than we could have thought was possible while all working from bedrooms, sheds and kitchen tables.

“But there is a serendipity and human connection which comes from being together in the office, bumping into colleagues in the corridor and chatting over the coffee machine, and I hope we can all return to this in time, while embracing the long-term benefits of greater flexibility.”

Law firm Baker McKenzie, which had around 1000 staff at its New Bridge Street office near Blackfriars prior to the pandemic, has had limited numbers allowed in. It hopes to increase capacity up to 25% (250 staff) in the office in September, albeit on a voluntary basis.

A spokesman for FTSE 100 wealth manager St James’s Place, which has around 200 London-based staff, says returning back to offices remains voluntary. Occupancy levels are at around 15% in its buildings and it aims to increase that to 30% through September to get more people back that want to be.

Ciaran Bird, chief executive UK & Ireland of property giant CBRE’s advisory business, said: “Soon after the government relaxed the restrictions, we reopened our physical workspaces with the necessary safety adjustments and processes to allow our people to start to return. We’re now some weeks on, and the number of returners continues to rise.”