The five-day office week could return within two years, as the rise in working from home prompted by the coronavirus pandemic is unlikely to last because people need – and want – direct contact, according to a leading UK thinktank.
While banks have started bringing traders and other workers back to the office, many other companies have adopted a more cautious stance, with experts predicting that a blend of home and office work will be common in the months ahead.
Many firms are downsizing their office space and some smaller businesses have scrapped them altogether to save money.
People who can work from home are still advised to do so by the government, although this will change if social distancing restrictions are lifted on 21 June as planned.
In recent days, the Apple chief executive, Tim Cook, faced protests from staff after he wrote a memo ordering them back to the office three days a week by September, with some teams told to come back for four or five days.
Paul Swinney, the director of policy and research at the thinktank Centre for Cities – which promotes the economic development of large UK cities and towns – is predicting a return to five days a week in the office in two years’ time, as companies realise “the benefit of working face to face, from interactions with your colleagues, bouncing ideas off each other, learning from each other”.
“In the next two years, the standard working pattern will probably be three to four days a week in the office, but then you’ll see a creep, a bounceback” to working patterns from before the coronavirus pandemic, he told the Guardian. “If someone is working in the office on a Monday and someone else is in on a Tuesday, you’re starting to miss interactions.”
He said people working from home would start to feel they were missing out.
“If you are not in the office but your colleague and boss are, you’re not part of the conversation. Remember the line from the musical Hamilton – ‘I want to be in the room where it happens.’ That’s why we think there will be a pullback.”
Research by Centre for Cities found that the number of people able to work from home are a minority in every city and large town in the UK, with big regional variations. London, Reading and Edinburgh have the highest shares of workers able to work from home – more than two-fifths. Meanwhile, in Barnsley, Burnley and Stoke just one in five people can work from home.
• This article was amended on 11 June 2021. Paul Swinney’s comments are from a Guardian interview, mention of which was lost in the editing process.