On a balmy Thursday evening, workers in office attire spill out on to the pavements of bars, pubs and restaurants in central London. They are part of a new trend in the flexible world of work: Thursday is the new Friday.
Office-based staff are increasingly returning to their city centre desks, but only for part of the week. Many are opting to commute to their workplaces during the “core” midweek days – Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday – bookending the working week at home.
The popularity of Thursday evening socialising with colleagues has not gone unnoticed by the bosses of hospitality businesses.
“In terms of pattern in the cities, Mondays tend to be quieter, Fridays tend to be quieter, Thursday very strong,” Phil Urban, the chief executive of the pub and restaurant group Mitchells & Butlers, said. “While the suburban business is still doing well, people who would have had a meal or a pint near their home are doing it in London.”
The company’s city-centre locations – which include the O’Neill’s and All Bar One chains – are getting gradually busier, Urban said, which he attributed to the slow but steady return of workers.
“It continues to strengthen, and that is partly the offices going back. I think offices will continue to go from three days to four days. I travel in and out [of London]and at my train station I’m now struggling to park again. It’s the first time I can say that in two years,” he said.
Covid-19 caused two years of stop-start restrictions for office-based companies and their employees, who were repeatedly told by the government to work from home, then urged to return to their desks.
After the lifting of lockdown measures, many businesses announced perks to entice their workers back, including unlimited hot drinks, free breakfasts or company-branded merchandise.
Despite these inducements, the return to the office has been a trickle rather than a flood. The number of passengers on the tube midweek remains at 70% of pre-Covid levels, according to Transport for London.
However, Thursday is streaking ahead as the most popular day to work alongside colleagues, according to TfL figures. Almost 3m tube journeys were made on Thursday 12 May, the highest number since the pandemic began.
The trickle rather than flood of people means the bakery chain Greggs, for example, is still reporting sales 10% below pre-Covid levels at its outlets in city centres as well as those near offices.
The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has called for more investment in the capital’s public transport to bring office workers back to their commute.
The sluggish 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 occupiers – including the accountancy firm Deloitte and its 20,000 UK employees, and most of the banking company NatWest Group’s 64,000-strong workforce – have switched to a hybrid model, allowing staff to divide their time between their corporate building and another location.
It increasingly looks as if hybrid working is here to stay. A quarter of workers (24%) were dividing their time between home and the office in May, according to the latest survey by the Office for National Statistics, up from 13% in early February.
Workers reported that an improved work-life balance was the main benefit of working from home in some capacity, while about half of hybrid workers said they had fewer distractions at home, and a similar number said working from home improved their wellbeing.
A tight jobs market, in which workers can pick and choose jobs, has given employees more leverage in this negotiation. Employers who offer hybrid working to their teams are also likely to benefit from improved output, according to Heejung Chung, professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Kent.
“We are increasingly seeing evidence where working from home will be helpful for productivity,” she said, adding that workers especially valued the chance to ditch the commute at a time of rising costs.
Not having to travel to an office every day “saves workers money and time, which evidence shows they give back to their employers in productivity gains when working from home”, she said.
Chung, the author of The Flexibility Paradox, a book on flexible working, believes some degree of remote working is here to stay.
“We will see businesses asking workers to come back in 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’s not going back in.”
Yet this new-found flexibility brings challenges for city centre businesses, from sandwich shops to dry cleaners, whose trade previously depended on a steady stream of office workers five days a week.
That may partly explain recent political interventions in the working-from-home debate. Boris Johnson recently called for workers to return to the office, saying it made people “more productive”.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the minister for efficiency, stoked criticism after leaving what were deemed to be passive-aggressive notes on the desks of civil servants who were not in the office when he visited.
Ministerial requests notwithstanding, the office return appears to be accelerating, as workers attend more in-person meetings. UK office occupancy hit its highest level since the start of the pandemic in the week ending 13 May, according to the latest data from Remit Consulting, a management consultancy that specialises in property.
The average weekly office occupancy rate reached almost 28% across the UK, and topped 29% in London that week, the highest recorded over the past year, according to data sourced from entry systems at office buildings in major cities.
However, this means office occupancy remains at about half the average level seen before the pandemic. Once again, the busiest days of the week remain Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Remit found.
Despite worries about what this means for the future of offices, leasing in London is booming, according to recent updates from the office owners Land Securities and British Land.
“We have had the best year for London leasing in 10 years,” Simon Carter, the chief executive of British Land, said, adding that companies were on the lookout for office space with natural light and outside terraces, and were demanding sustainable, energy-efficient buildings.
Location is also important, Carter said: “I think there has been a drive to more central locations, because if people are going to come into the office three, four days a week but live more dispersed around the UK, they want an office that is closer to a major transport hub.”
British Land has three “campuses” in London that comprise office buildings, surrounding shops and hospitality venues and account for two-thirds of its property portfolio. Even it concedes the post-pandemic world of work will differ from what came before.
“Our overall view is that London will need less space because of working from home, but it is going to need better space,” Carter said. “And that is what we are seeing in our leasing activity.”