The Omicron variant announcement on the 26th of November 2021 came when workplaces in the UK were starting to see a steady increase in office repopulation. This article uses Freespace Index data and analysis to document the correlation between office attendance in the UK and Government announcements. Noted throughout the management of the Omicron variant to identify data points to inform return-to-office strategies in 2022.  

Repopulation of offices in 2021

The UK began to see a credible repopulation of offices in September 2021, as restrictions to manage the Delta variant eased and confidence grew. With organizations more focused on hygiene and safety measures at the workplace and rollout of booster vaccinations. In September, UK offices saw the highest occupancy rates since pre-pandemic. Weekly attendance averaged 25% occupancy in 80% of offices open – above the Freespace Index levels of 10% occupancy for the week. The UK was above global averages in occupancy (21%) and % of offices open (42%). 

Two months later, November 2021 proved to be highest for global occupancy averages for the year. All regions starting to positively return to the workplace, the overall occupancy rates averaging 24% for the month. The UK was higher with an average occupancy of 26%.

Another variant in the Return to Office: Omicron

The Omicron variant, announced on the 26th of November, resulted in significant reductions in people attending the workplace across the globe although each with different timelines as each region manages their policies and controls independently. 

The two weeks following the Omicron announcement was a period of uncertainty as scientists needed to understand the variant to enable an appropriate Government response. The UK saw a shock drop to below 10% occupancy on the 1st Monday post the Omicron announcement. The following days of the week saw occupancy levels only 3-4% less than the November equivalent day.  

The Prime Minister announced the implementation of Plan B for the UK on Wednesday the 8th of December. This included the request for people to work from home if able. There was a direct response the following day. Although Thursdays are usually the busiest day of the week for office attendance, Thursday the 9th saw a 9% drop on November averages. An indication that people were adhering to Government advice straight away. 

The following week saw occupancy rates in the UK at early pandemic levels. People adhered to the guidelines and took personal precautions to keep safe in the lead-up to the Christmas celebrations.

Office occupancy recovery from the start of 2022

The start of 2022 saw little office occupancy in the first week of January. The UK Government confirming Plan B policies to remain in place on the 5th of January. The second week of January saw a leap in the number of offices open across the UK. Increasing to 52% and exceeding the percentage in December. However, occupancy rates remained very low at 12% occupancy, indicating that only those who needed to come in were coming into the workplace.  

By week three, the number of offices opening slowed to 58% across the UK. Further stabilizing in the next week in anticipation of the Government guidelines on the 26th of January. Though the number of offices opening had slowed, office occupancy % rose steadily during these weeks. By 5% on average each week. People were making their judgments of returning to the workplace. At the end of week four, total office occupancy was only 3% off November averages, at 21%.  

We noted a distinct difference between offices opening in London and across the UK. 14% more buildings were opening outside London. Public transport is the likely deterrent to returning to the office in larger cities. 

On the 26th of January, the UK Prime Minister removed the Plan B conditions and people were encouraged to return to the workplace if they chose. The week following this saw a 10% increase in offices opening, just below the November percentages. We did not see a corresponding rise in occupancy levels. This was reflected in news articles covering the return to the workplace, where Freespace data and other sources showed people were not yet keen to return to the office.  

Tracking the occupancy rates for the two weeks post removal of the Plan B restrictions, Freespace noted that the UK finally reached the same weekly occupancy rates as November. However, the increase slowed to a 1% increase week-on-week.

The return to office, living with Covid

The “Living with Covid-19” announcement, the final UK COVID restrictions to be implemented Thursday 24th of February, was made on Monday 21st of February. The week of the announcement saw an upswing in occupancy. The highest occupancy rates recorded at 36% on the Thursday restrictions were lifted. 

It took the final COVID announcement for people to feel comfortable to return to the workplace in numbers greater than the pre-Omicron period. Noted most in London where occupancy rates, always behind the wider UK occupancy, saw rates finally equaled. And on the busiest Thursday surpass the UK daily averages.  

Summary: the impact of Omicron on workplaces

Following the occupancy attendance in workplaces across thirteen weeks and throughout the Omicron variant for the UK and globally, Freespace has been able to make the following observations:

  • People and organizations do respond directly to government policy and announcements.
  • People make their judgments and can pre-empt policy decisions if given the flexibility. 
  • Larger cities see a slower return to the workplace compared to smaller and less urban areas.  
  • In the UK, lifting the wider COVID restrictions seemed to be the catalyst for occupancy rates really starting to increase. 

Freespace provides organizations with workplace technology to measure occupancy and effectively manage change in real-time. To discuss a flexible workplace strategy for your organization, contact our team

Global workplace intelligence

You can stay up to date with office occupancy trends by signing up to the Freespace Index – a monthly analysis of office use statistics – of offices considered “open for business” with an average of 10% occupancy or greater a week – providing opportune workplace intelligence to businesses. 

To benchmark against growing trends, download the latest Freespace Index report