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Stroll across London Bridge on a Thursday morning and you are greeted with a bustling sight that, while once unremarkable, has regained its novelty since the pandemic hit.
Crowds of commuters are returning, purposefully striding towards their City offices, clutching coffees and smartphones.
Revisit the same spot just a day later, however, and the throngs of people are smaller - a sign of a growing trend affecting the nation’s workplaces.
While the number of workers going back to the office is rising, many have adopted a new working week: coming into the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, but staying at home on Mondays and Fridays.
This is borne out by new data from mobile provider Virgin Media O2, which shows that while 215,000 journeys were made into the City last Thursday, just 130,000 followed on Friday.
Similar patterns have been seen since workers started coming back in September, although many offices are still only at half capacity compared to before the pandemic.
For small businesses in cities, the change is proving difficult to adapt to.
Edward, who runs a coffee stall near St Guy’s Hospital, says the difference in sales on Mondays and Fridays compared to the rest of the working week is stark.
“We will often see sales drop by 30pc, sometimes 50pc,” he says. “My regulars tell me it’s because they can choose to work flexibly now - and so many only choose to come in during the middle of the week.”
Chris, a Big Issue seller who stands nearby, says he is also shifting fewer copies every day.
“I barely sell anything, everyone is working from home now. Things have changed.”
Pointing to a vacant office building across the road, he asks: “Do you see anyone moving in?”
Restaurants and bars in the capital’s nightlife hotspots also report growing trade on so-called “thirsty Thursdays”, as workers wrap up their commuting week a day earlier than previously.
Virgin Media O2 says this trend is particularly evident in Soho, where crowds now regularly peak on Thursdays.
Alice, a hostess at patisserie Maison Bertaux, says: “It is definitely busier on Thursdays. I think Thursday is becoming the new Friday.”
Soren Jessen, who runs City restaurants 1 Lombard Street and Ekte Nordic Kitchen, admitted that long lunches on Fridays have become increasingly less popular among bankers and traders.
“The week has become a bell-shaped curve, with takings peaking on Wednesday and Thursday and then tailing off,” he recently told the Evening Standard.
It is also presenting a potential headache for employers, who fret about wasted office space, and whether to mandate staff coming in on deserted days over concerns that productivity will drop off at the end of the week.
Only half of firms said they had already returned to their normal workplace in a recent survey by the Office for National Statistics, while one in eleven companies don’t expect anyone to return at all.
As businesses adjust to more irregular routines, bosses may clash with workers who don’t want to come in as often as they would like, warns Sebastian Bailey, co-founder of management training business Mindgym.
He says that while companies have plenty to gain from staff rubbing shoulders, they should remember that many employees are happier ditching their commute, widely seen as the “worst part of the day”.
“During the pandemic, many businesses have demonstrated that they can be productive when employees work from home,” he adds. “Hybrid working is now all about trying to get the balance right.
“There’s no doubt that at the moment that Monday and Friday are the least popular days for the office. But people will still hold virtual meetings and talk to each other, so they are still connected.”
Yet as employees continue to clock in remotely, there is paranoia in some businesses about whether staff are shirking during working hours.
The concern has sparked a thriving new market for so-called “tattleware”, software that attempts to track the activity of staff through emails, screen monitoring, keystroke logging and mouse activity.
Some firms are going to even more extraordinary lengths. A recent survey by the Prospect union found that one in ten remote workers now report being surveilled by camera in their own home by employers.
Andrew Pakes, Prospect’s research director, says that while this type of “dystopian” technology was until recently only used to track manual labourers such as warehouse staff, white collar workers are now finding themselves at the mercy of an algorithm too.
“This is still a new area and there is a real risk that employers are adopting this software without understanding the impact it can have on wellbeing and productivity,” he says. “No one likes to be watched all the time.”
Among the hundreds of firms jostling to help employers snoop on their employees is Russia-based StaffCop, which boasts that its digital tools can help firms “identify the laggards or high performers” by monitoring staff use of “websites, applications, social media” and instant messenger services.
It also claims the software can help prevent “insider threats” such as cyber attacks.
But Mindgym’s Bailey warns that too much interference can backfire, breeding distrust and cynicism among workers who resent being micromanaged.
“Of course you run the risk of social loafing,” he says. “But while people can coast when they work from home, they can also do that in the office - the most important things for productivity are trust and accountability.”
John Van Reenen, a professor at the London School of Economics who studies productivity, agrees.
“Of course there are things like brainstorming, having meetings and meeting clients that are better done in the office, but many people also spend lots of time during their day doing things like answering emails and that it is just as efficient to do from home,” Van Reenen says.
“As we move towards hybrid working, I am sure there will be lots of mistakes along the way. “There will be problems too, including cases where people are effectively taking an even longer weekend than they normally would do.
“But there is a lot of evidence that shows the most successful firms are the ones that have a high-trust relationship with their employees and give them more discretion to decide their own working hours.”