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Work from home: Offices to remain deserted for months in Britain

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LONDON (Reuters) - Offices and workspaces across England are likely to remain deserted for months longer under British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan for a phased restart of the battered economy after the artificial slumber of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Counting houses and skyscrapers across London’s skyline - from the hedge funds of Mayfair and the lawyers’ chambers of Holborn to the trading floors of the City and Canary Wharf - have emptied during almost a year of restrictions.

Big banks, law firms and investment funds sent all but a skeleton staff home months ago, leaving one of the world’s biggest global financial capitals without its bustle.

Shoe shops, coffee bars and pubs stand closed across the financial district, some permanently.

As he unveiled his four-stage plan for lifting the restrictions, Johnson cautioned that there would be no “zero COVID world”, so people would have to get used to the novel coronavirus as they have got used to the flu.

But he gave no clear date for an end to working from home - one of the biggest changes to global working practices in decades.

Johnson said the government would review the need for social distancing and face masks in a process that would conclude ahead of Step 4 of the restart plan, which would not come into force before June 21.

“People should continue to work from home where they can,” Johnson told parliament.

The end of the office, predicted by some, has already forced companies to assess whether they need to pay for vast spaces in central London, while the city’s transport system has been pushed towards insolvency by a lack of commuters.

As employers mull ways to cut costs in the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, some employees have been driven to distraction - or drink - by working from home while home schooling. But some have found it liberating to cut out an expensive commute.

Facebook Inc. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last year that about half its workforce would eventually do their jobs outside the office over the next five to 10 years.

A report by Citi last year found that 24% of occupations in the United States could be performed remotely - and that those occupations employ 52% of the U.S. workforce.

“Before the Industrial Revolution, most people worked from their homes producing the goods and food they needed,” Citi said. “The COVID-19 pandemic was able to accelerate the shift to remote working.”

After grappling with conference calls with far-off bosses for months, some employees have considered selling up and moving out of London - Europe’s most expensive real estate market.

Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and David Milliken; Editing by Kate Holton, Elizabeth Piper and Alex Richardson

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