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Return to offices ‘will not increase’

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Britain’s offices might not get much fuller than they are now, with the number of people returning “appearing to have plateaued” over the past couple of months.

Occupancy levels throughout the UK fell to 29.1 per cent last week, having notched up a post-pandemic high of 33.1 per cent in the week before.

Remit Consulting, which tracks card key fob usage to compile its data, said the latest figures probably had been affected by the train and London Underground strikes, although the longer-term trend still suggested that the return to the office was running out of steam.

Occupancy levels breached 30 per cent in June before dropping below 25 per cent as schools began to finish for the summer holidays. There was a noticeable pick-up in attendance as schools went back in early September, since when offices have been, on average, 30.1 per cent full.

“Since the end of the summer holidays, office occupancy has been fluctuating around 30 per cent,” Lorna Landells, a director at Remit Consulting, said. “The national figures seem to have plateaued. With the festive season just round the corner, it seems unlikely that there will be a significant leap in the average number of office workers returning to their desks before the turn of the year.”

Even before the pandemic, illness, holidays and external meetings meant that offices were never 100 per cent full. Few in the industry kept tabs on exactly what occupancy was like, but the consensus is that it was about 70 per cent.

Remit’s data shows that Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday remain, by some distance, the busiest days of week, which will be no surprise to regular commuters. Fridays are the quietest, but that was the case before the pandemic as well.

As Britain went into lockdown in March 2020, occupancy at offices fell from about 70 per cent to almost zero. It fell sharply again in the run-up to last Christmas as people fretted that the Omicron coronavirus variant might hit their plans for a second successive year.

In 2020, there was pressure from some companies on their workers to get back into the office. Drinks trolleys, free lunches and yoga classes were used to tempt people back.

That has eased this year as bosses have accepted that, with the jobs market so tight, if they are not seen to be flexible, talent will move elsewhere.

Salary always used to be the main driver for switching jobs, but recruiters say that flexibility — along with a company’s particular purpose — is now almost as important.