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Few workers heed Boris Johnson's plea to get back to offices

Rupert Neate in Birmingham
·6-min read

Boris Johnson’s plea that people “should be going back to work” in offices across England from Monday appeared to have gone unheeded in central Birmingham.

In the Colmore business district, which normally has 35,000 workers, most office blocks were largely deserted and at the city’s train stations at rush hour only a handful of people sauntered out, mostly heading to work in shops or hospitals rather than to office-based jobs.

Johnson had said it was “important people should be going back to work now”, but even he seemed to struggle to lead by example. The prime minister left his office in Downing Street after lunchtime and spent most of the day working from his country residence at Chequers.

Among the roughly two dozen people the Guardian spoke to in Birmingham on Monday morning, only two were on the way back to office work for the first time since the coronavirus lockdown.

Radha Heera said she was “excited but very nervous” about heading back to her desk at West Midlands police headquarters after almost five months at home. It was not only her first day back at work but the first time she had left her house in Wolverhampton because she had been shielding for medical reasons.

“It’s been tough,” she said, pulling out her earphones to chat. “I live on my own, so I haven’t seen anyone, not even my family, and that has been tough mentally. I’m allowed back out now, though, phew.”

Heera, 31, said it was slightly odd that the first people she would see since emerging from lockdown were her colleagues rather than her loved ones.

The first item on her to-do list when she arrived at her desk was to book a day off for her birthday to finally see her family and celebrate. “It’s my birthday on 27 August, so I am going to ask my manager as soon as I get in if I can have that day off because my sister wants to do a barbecue,” she said.

Across the street, Mark Costello, a lawyer at DWF, was approaching his office on Snowhill dressed in patterned lycra. “It’s my Covid commute,” he said. “I live just outside Crewe, so I cycle to Crewe and then get the train.”

It was only the third time Costello had been to the office since lockdown began in mid-March. “I’m coming in today because there is some hard documentation I have to deal with,” he said. “There is absolutely no reason for us to be in this office every day – I can do my job perfectly well from anywhere.”

It is a different story for some legal secretaries and support staff, who say their workloads have gone up as lawyers working from home rely on them to do more from the office.

Christine Williams, a legal secretary at a different law firm nearby, said she had been “very, very busy for the last few months. In the office it’s mostly secretaries and we are busier than normal because the lawyers are at home and they send us what they can’t do from home”.

Williams, 58, said she did not resent having to go into the office while the lawyers worked from home. “When you’ve been furloughed and you’ve been at home for two months, it’s good to be back.”

James Carver, a chartered surveyor, was striding up Church Street in a dark blue suit. “It’s my first time back in Birmingham since lockdown started,” he said. “I’m a bit nervous about it but we’ll see how it goes.”

In his office there would be only three people in at any time, compared with eight before lockdown. “Working from home is not quite the same, is it?” said Carver, 34, who commutes from Warwick. “I just quite like getting into work, sitting at a desk and getting on with some work.”

London’s Canary Wharf

“This place is totally dead – and it has been for months,” Dean Smith, a taxi driver, said as he waited in a long line of cabs in a rank outside JP Morgan Chase’s European headquarters in Canary Wharf, London, on Monday evening.

Smith, who lives nearby in the Docklands, said the government’s plea for office workers to start going back to work this week appeared to make “no difference whatever” to footfall in the east London financial hub.

“I could be waiting here for three to four hours and not get a single fare,” he said, at 5:30pm on the first day that office workers have been encouraged to venture back to their desks. “This is meant to be rush hour in the financial capital and yet there’s no one.”

Smartly dressed men and women do occasionally leave the gleaming office towers of the world’s biggest bank but few will stop to talk. Many of those who do say they have been working throughout the lockdown have not noticed much of an uptick on Monday.

“We have been working two days a week all through this,” said Matt, who works in risk management at an international bank and declined to provide his surname. “It finally feels like there are some more people now and at least there are some places open for lunch now. It was real eerie earlier in the crisis.”

Dean and Michelle, who work at the Independent Office for Police Conduct, estimated that they are among only 2% of staff back in their office.

“Today was the first time they [management] have spelt out how you can come back in but they’re still pretty keen you stay at home,” Dean said. “It’s mostly just the core group of us who have been working from the office for a while.”

Michelle said she had asked for permission to work from the office after struggling to work from the home she shares with other young professionals, also trying to work and live in the same cramped space.

“It’s hard when you live in London and are in shared accommodation, and don’t have the space for a desk,” she said. “Everyone is on top of each other all day.”

They said their office has been prepared for more people to return, with desks spread apart, but say other colleagues wanting to join them will have to book their return in advance and fill in a lot of forms. “Check back in couple of weeks, I reckon it’ll be more back to normal by then,” Michelle said. “To be fair, across the whole of Canary Wharf today is the busiest I’ve seen it since March.”