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London office life not likely to return to pre-Covid practices, NatWest chair says

The chair of NatWest, one of Britain’s biggest banks, has said office life in London is unlikely ever to return to how things were before the coronavirus pandemic.

Howard Davies said he expected lasting cultural changes even after the danger from the virus receded. “The days when 2,500 people walked in through our office door on Bishopsgate at 8:30 and then walked out again at 6 o’clock, I think that is gone. I suspect there won’t be that many people who will be doing five long days in the office.”

In a Bloomberg TV interview, Davies said that many of NatWest’s office-based employees would probably continue to work from home part-time after pandemic restrictions eased, in the latest sign of big business reassessing working practices.

“Central London will not go back to as much footfall as we had before. I don’t think there’s much appetite for that, because people are concerned about the risks of travelling and also they’ve discovered that they can do things in a different way, and that wasting all that line on the Northern line is not necessarily the best way of spending your life.”

The Westminster government on Monday removed all restrictions on public mixing in England, including guidance that people should work from home when possible. Many businesses have been wary of allowing all workers to return because of rising infection rates.

Davies said that businesses in the UK and elsewhere would probably be “cautious” about trying to return to pre-pandemic practices, in part because of the continued threat of infection by the coronavirus.

His comments put him at odds with Goldman Sachs chief executive, David Solomon, who has called working from home an “aberration”, but in line with bank bosses at HSBC and JP Morgan who expect more home working for office workers.

Some business leaders have criticised the government for its advice on handling increasing absences as workers are advised to self-isolate following contact with someone who later tested positive for the virus. Davies said government messaging around the issue had been “a bit complicated”.

NatWest is experiencing some difficulties in keeping branches open with worker absences because of self-isolation guidance, although central operations have coped so far.

Davies said there were some “worry areas” in the UK economy, particularly among the most pandemic-affected sectors in which companies had taken on relatively high debt burdens to see them through the crisis. However, he said he was not worried overall about the UK economy, in part because consumers have increased savings after staying at home for large periods of the last 18 months.

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