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Businesses under pressure to reopen offices to save economy

PUBLISHED: 08:45 28 August 2020 | UPDATED: 11:29 28 August 2020

The number of office workers coming back to Norwich is slowly creeping back up. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The number of office workers coming back to Norwich is slowly creeping back up. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Archant

Getting staff back to the offices is as “important as getting pupils back to school” in order to “rescue” our high streets, business leaders have warned.

Shoppers are out in force, but shops are saying they're feeling the strain of a lack of office workers. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYShoppers are out in force, but shops are saying they're feeling the strain of a lack of office workers. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

But are the major employers across Norfolk and Waveney’s towns and city ready to come back to their headquarters?

Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, has a stark warning about the lack of people commuting into towns and cities.

“The UK’s offices are vital drivers of our economy,” she said. “They support thousands of local firms, from drycleaners to sandwich bars. They help train and develop young people. And they foster better work and productivity for many kinds of business.

Shoppers out in the city as more businesses are reopening. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYShoppers out in the city as more businesses are reopening. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

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The costs of office closure are becoming clearer by the day. Some of our busiest city centres resemble ghost towns.”

Luckily Norwich’s recovery has picked up, with its economy now being classified as “strong” by the Centre for Cities – where previously the thinktank had revealed it was among the slowest to get back on its feet after lockdown.

Of an index of 100 Norwich’s footfall has risen from 33 points when non-essential shops reopened to 74.

But when it comes to office workers – and those who nip out for a coffee in the morning and a sandwich at lunch – the index remains low.

Prior to lockdown the index stood at 110, though this dropped to around 20 by May and has stayed at a similar level ever since.

However one of the biggest factors which has pushed workers back into the city is the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, with the footfall data seeing marked spikes on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in August.

On the first Tuesday and Wednesday of the month the index stood at 27 and 25, however on Thursday and Friday this dropped to 20 and 18 – spelling trouble for September.

Chris Starkie, chief executive of New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “Supporting our town centres, and the businesses which rely of footfall from large offices, is important. We hope that the measures put into place in our town centres, and the shops, eateries and businesses within them, give people the confidence to start returning.

“We know that many organisations will be thinking very carefully about their staff returning to the workplace and employers need to work with their employees to make the decisions which are right for them – not just for health reasons, but with consideration to all the other benefits and challenges which several months of remote working has posed for many. When employers deem it to be appropriate and safe for employees to return, it will certainly have a positive impact on our town centres.”

He was echoed by Chris Sargisson, chief executive of Norfolk Chambers of Commerce, who said: “The Norfolk business community continues to face challenges as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the latest being the appropriate time to return to their offices. Ultimately, employers want to ensure their staff are safe in their workplace and whilst social distancing remains, there will be many who simply cannot accommodate their full team in their existing premises under these guidelines.”

He added the new normal will be a compromise between office hours and working from home.

“In terms of the commercial impact of Covid-19 on Norwich, it is more likely to exacerbate some of the longer standing economic issues in the city, namely the strong dependence on retail. Norwich has a disproportionate sized retail sector and a large section of the traditional larger office space is unoccupied; converted to accommodation; or repurposed in other ways.

“As a city we need to consider what the future looks like and balance the economic content of our city and towns to capitalise on future economic opportunities and grow jobs in our region,” he said.


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