When RMT union members closed the London Underground last March, Transport for London assumed a similar role to health chiefs during the coronavirus pandemic.
Rather than telling white collar workers to find alternative means of transport to get to the office – as was customary pre-Covid – TfL advised people to “work from home if possible”.
The messaging highlighted just how commonplace homeworking had become in Britain. The latest figures by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that almost a quarter of workers have a hybrid working arrangement, while 14pc work from home exclusively.
Back in March, the transport authority’s advice was widely observed as strike chaos engulfed the country for much of the year. Similarly, rail commuters have been told not to travel this week unless “absolutely necessary” as the industrial action continues.
Data shows that the UK’s return to the workplace gained pace in the first half of last year but stalled from the end of June.
This coincided with Mick Lynch’s RMT starting its campaign of industrial action across the country’s railways, suggesting that the strikes played a part in killing off the already stuttering return to the office.
As travel chaos continues with union barons threatening to prolong industrial action into the summer, will the strikes cast a long shadow over efforts to get employees out of their homes and into the workplace?
Google Mobility data shows that a return to the office peaked last year in May and June at around 17pc below pre-pandemic levels. However, office occupancy declined once again over the summer as strikes, coupled with the summer holiday season, kept workers away from the office.
During the last week of August and the first week of September, visits to offices across the UK fell to more than 30pc below pre-pandemic levels, according to the data, following a summer of strike chaos.
This rebounded back to 20pc below 2019 levels by October – still short of the peak return levels seen earlier in the year. In London, which has experienced some of the highest levels of remote working of any region in the UK, office occupancy remained stubbornly low at around 30pc below pre-pandemic levels.
Rachel Suff, senior employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says: “Many organisations have faced extensive employment relations challenges recently and the current incidents of industrial action have no doubt impacted on many people’s working habits.
“With several days of strike action on the railways and across other sectors, employers need to plan in advance to minimise the impact on their services or operations.”
The Centre for Economics and Business Research said that the three days of industrial action in June alone would cost the UK economy almost £100m, estimating that around 250,000 people would be unable to work owing to the disruption.
The UK is already facing a productivity crisis, with people leaving the labour market in droves and the output of those who remain stagnating. Strikes are only making things worse.
Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak appears to have abandoned his predecessors’ tougher stance on encouraging employees back to the office.
Last month, Sir James Dyson condemned government plans to extend employees’ rights to work from home as “economically illiterate and staggeringly self-defeating”.
The founder and chief engineer of Singapore-based multinational technology company Dyson said the move would “hamper employers’ ability to organise their workforce”.
Responding to the criticism, Grant Shapps, the Business Secretary, insisted that the move was “sensible” and reflected “a modern workplace”.
He said: “We are living in a society where we recognise the importance of the balance between working and living our lives.”
He added: “What we’ve said is that people should be able to ask the question. In other words, we’re trying to set the ground rules, but we’re not forcing the answer.”
This is in stark contrast to Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former business secretary and Brexit opportunities minister, who launched a war on homeworking during his time in government.
He tells the Telegraph: “The damaging economic consequences of working from home have become clearer and the railwaymen are impoverishing the nation. In the end this will impoverish them as they are heavily dependent on unaffordable taxpayer subsidies.”
Boris Johnson was also an outspoken proponent of getting workers back to the workplace as prime minister, arguing that people are “more productive, more energetic, more full of ideas” when they join colleagues in the office.
Research also points to employers failing to enforce mandatory office rules. A recent study by Women in Banking and Finance (WIBF), a non-profit network, and the London School of Economics found that bankers were ignoring minimum office attendance rules with “remote-first” working – when working from home the majority of the time is the status quo – was now commonplace in the Square Mile.
The report said: “[This] highlights that while at the C-suite level executives in many large firms are asking for workers to come into the office a specific number of days per week, in practice they are being ignored, with managers often favouring a remote-first approach that satisfies local operational needs.”
The findings highlight how senior bosses are struggling to demand that rank-and-file employees return to the workplace on a more regular basis after nearly three years of flexible arrangements.
On Tuesday, Mick Lynch showed no sign of staging a climb down anytime soon. He said: “Our members are taking action right across the country, from the north of Scotland to the tip of Cornwall. The railway service has ground to a halt and it will be severely disrupted this week – we don’t take any pleasure in that.”
CIPD’s Suff says: “The widespread industrial action is also a sharp reminder of the continued influence of trade unions in key sectors, as well as the need for organisations to build positive employment relations that aim to avert industrial action.”
Yet strikes are likely to prolong the work from home phenomenon and are set to hurt city economies, especially the retail and hospitality sectors.
As the third anniversary of Britain’s first Covid lockdown nears, there are few signs of the UK returning to its pre-pandemic working habits. It seems alternative means of transport have been abandoned in favour of the kitchen table.