On 19 January last year, the government withdrew its Covid guidance suggesting people in England should work from home. The pace and scale of the resulting return to work naturally became a topic of great interest and no little anxiety throughout the subsequent 12 months.
Home and hybrid working continued long after restrictions were lifted, with a significant impact on the office sector and knock-on consequences for hospitality and residential markets.
Given central government’s starring role in creating such a massive, unplanned shift in commuting habits, it’s interesting to learn how its own workforce responded. Starting on 7 February 2022, the Cabinet Office began collecting occupancy statistics to measure how many civil servants were at work in 19 key buildings across central London. We reported on this data in early September, and numbers are now available through to the Christmas break.
Almost all of the government departments covered saw a gradual resumption of commuting as the months of 2022 went by.
Applying a simple trend line to spiky weekly data shows that the 2 Marsham Street headquarters of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, for example, saw occupancy rising from just below 40% in February to about 75% by the first week of December.
The Home Office, headquartered in the same building, saw an occupancy trend line that grew from the mid-40s to the mid-50s in percentage terms over the same period. Attendance at HMRC, based at 100 Parliament Street, doubled from around 30% to about 60% by the end of the year.
One of the most notable exceptions is the Cabinet Office itself, where average HQ occupancy rates barely shifted at all throughout the year. The chart of collected data shows a trend line starting in February at just under 70% occupancy and concluding in December at just under 70%.
I am not suggesting that these figures for central government offices represent a key indicator for other offices across the nation. And indeed they come with a grab-bag of caveats. The data is not up to the standards required for official statistics – each department having dreamt up its own means to glean average daily occupancy from internal information such as entry card data. And most of the figures were gathered under the beady eye of Jacob Rees-Mogg, who made no secret of his desire to see office-based toil while serving as minister for government efficiency, from February to September.
But our sector can perhaps take heart from the fact that Whitehall’s effort to gather data on its own staff did record a steady return to the workplace throughout the year.
Alternatively, one might focus on the data for the last part of the year, which reveals that almost all departments saw no further improvement in occupancy rates after September. No doubt Rees-Mogg would link this lack of forward march to his own return to the back benches, although my guess would be that the charts for Q4 2022 reveal the new, settled normal.
That, I suspect, may well be the lesson we can all learn from the data diligently gathered by the Cabinet Office. Wherever your own office occupancy stood last quarter, that’s probably as good as it’s going to get.
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