A plea to return to work and sanity by ALEX BRUMMER

When will the sleeping giant wake? As Google lets staff stay at home until next summer, a despairing plea for a return to work — and sanity — by ALEX BRUMMER

The gleaming glass building will stand 11 storeys tall, it will be topped by a huge roof garden with its own running track, and boast a 25-metre swimming pool, indoor basketball court and nap pods for staff. 

This is the £1billion state-of-the-art office campus in King’s Cross ­destined to become Google’s ­London headquarters where ­thousands of staff are expected to work.

Or were expected to. Because the search engine giant has just informed all its employees that they can continue working from home and will not have to go back to the office — until the summer of next year. 

And some question whether this all-singing, all dancing HQ will ever now be occupied at all. 

Google’s £1bn state-of-the-art campus in Kings Cross is expected to boast  a huge roof garden with its own running track, and boast a 25-metre swimming pool, indoor basketball court and nap pods for staff

Meanwhile, in the streets nearby it’s like a ghost town. Buses are empty. Normally bustling shops are barely ­functioning. 

And sandwich bars that only months ago were doing a roaring trade aren’t even operating. 

The snail’s pace with which workers in Britain’s high-octane economy are returning to their offices is devastating the chances of economic ­recovery and poses a massive threat to jobs. 

Instead of invoking a ‘can-do’ spirit as the pandemic retreats and lockdown eases, big firms are taking a desperately- ­cautious approach and postponing a return to office ­working until well into the autumn, if not 2021. 

Boris Johnson has been clear that he wants to see the nation’s towns and cities buzzing again — yet he hasn’t even managed to get Whitehall civil servants back to their posts. 

The arm of government reporting the largest numbers of people who have returned to their desks is the tax office, which is playing a central role in administering the ­furlough schemes. 

Employees aren’t expected to use Google’s Kings Cross campus, highlighted above, until at least next summer, after they delayed a return to office work following the coronavirus pandemic

But even at HMRC, the number of tax collectors back in their offices in Whitehall and around the land is a fifth of the workforce at best. 

For many public servants, working from home has become a lifestyle choice. 

The Department for Work & ­Pensions has distributed a staggering 13,000 tax payer funded new computers to allow work to continue for huge numbers of its staff. 

So entrenched has working at home become among some of the FTSE 100’s biggest ­public companies that embarrassed bosses have ordered communications teams to arrange for backdrops ­displaying company logos or products when they hold their Zoom calls with City analysts and shareholders. 

Why are Britain’s employers and white-collar workers in the City of London, Canary Wharf and the UK’s bigger ­cities so timid? 

After all, it’s a different world in Hong Kong and Tokyo where most of the workforce are back at their desks drumming up business. 

Even in New York, the world’s financial colossus where the virus is still raging, the major global investment banks such as JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs are pulling their people back in. 

No one should underestimate the damage caused by allowing offices in Britain to remain locked down while competitor nations fire up activity. 

Research in the U.S. shows that in the early weeks of home-working, productivity improved — but over time employees have become less productive and complacent about keeping their jobs. 

The longer people are away from their workplaces, the harder it is going to be to bring them back. 

Of course, no company wants to act irresponsibly. 

But the reality is that risk cannot be eliminated completely. 

And infection rates in Britain are now so low, there is no reason people cannot go back to their offices so long as social ­distancing and strict hygiene measures are in place. 

The summer, when employees are on holiday and numbers in the office are lower, is the ideal time to bring staff back slowly. 

Yet the list of companies holding off from doing so reads like a Who’s Who of UK enterprise — from insurers Aviva to accountants Deloitte and the giant consumer-goods manufacturer Unilever. 

Many companies have said they will start bringing staff back in September. 

But these ­people won’t be up and running immediately. 

They will need to be coaxed back out of their homes; they will have to re-adjust to commuting and work in the new environment. 

While Google’s £1bn campus remains far off for employees, other workers are being told to continue to work from home, and the government’s spend on furlough has now topped £30bn

It can take weeks or even months. In contrast, if staff had been encouraged to stop working from home over the summer, these businesses could, with willpower and determination, have taken off early in the autumn. 

The reality is that the longer remote working goes on, the more lost business there will be and the greater the odds that the trickles of redundancy across the country could become a torrent.  

Many have become inured to, or simply don’t understand, the devastating cost to the ­economy of keeping workers at home. 

The damage is there for all to see in UK city centres, which are now eerily silent. 

It is not just the food outlets near offices where commuters get coffee and lunch—although that’s important, with sandwich chain Upper Crust recently shedding 5,000 jobs. 

It is the vast industry associated with servicing commuters and offices. 

There’s the maintenance, computer and ­construction staff; the cleaners and catering staff; the pubs and restaurants; the dry cleaners and shoe repairers; the train and bus companies and taxi drivers; the list is endless. 

Much of the true devastation is hidden because huge ­numbers are furloughed and many of the firms that provide the services have been lent government money. 

But furlough has to end. The latest official data shows that the furlough bill has reached £31.7 billion and the banks have so far pumped £50billion o f tax payer-guaranteed loans into an astonishing 1.17million firms. 

What is so striking is that, while it is the white-collar workers who so often have been able to continue to work at home, blue-collar employees have mostly been unable to — and it is their jobs that are hugely at risk. But the office workers are victims too. 

The absence of spontaneous social interaction means business opportunities are lost, while in-house training is suspended and the top brass in companies become still more remote from their more junior colleagues. 

Bringing Britain’s financial services sector out of lockdown and back to work is of the utmost urgency if the UK’s extraordinary success in ­supplying banking, insurance and consulting services around the globe is not to be undermined. 

In the last year, finance and the service industries generated a remarkable trade surplus of £84.1billion with the rest of the world. 

They were also responsible for £75.5 billion of tax revenues and employed 2.3million people. 

Yet one of the nation’s biggest financial services companies, NatWest (formerly Royal Bank of Scotland), which is 62 per cent controlled by the ­Government, has announced it will not be bringing its office workforce back until January 2021. 

One fully understands why big banks and vast internet firm such as Google don’t want to be responsible for creating Covid-19 hotspots. 

But landlords such as the Canary Wharf Group in ­London, having carefully ­analysed the development, believe they could safely accommodate up to 70 per cent of workers back at their desks. 

Office workers may be ­revelling in the chance to end the commute, abandon their smart outfits and enjoy their families more by being at home. 

But the terrifying truth is that it’s a way of life which is destroying towns and cities across Britain — and will wreck any chance of the country returning to prosperity for years to come.

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