When RMT union members closed the London Underground last March, Transport for London assumed a similar role to health chiefs during the coronavirus pandemic.
Rather than telling white collar workers to find alternative means of transport to get to the office – as was customary pre-Covid – TfL advised people to “work from home if possible”.
The messaging highlighted just how commonplace homeworking had become in Britain. The latest figures by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that almost a quarter of workers have a hybrid working arrangement, while 14pc work from home exclusively.
Back in March, the transport authority’s advice was widely observed as strike chaos engulfed the country for much of the year. Similarly, rail commuters have been told not to travel this week unless “absolutely necessary” as the industrial action continues.
Data shows that the UK’s return to the workplace gained pace in the first half of last year but stalled from the end of June.
This coincided with Mick Lynch’s RMT starting its campaign of industrial action across the country’s railways, suggesting that the strikes played a part in killing off the already stuttering return to the office.
As travel chaos continues with union barons threatening to prolong industrial action into the summer, will the strikes cast a long shadow over efforts to get employees out of their homes and into the workplace?
Google Mobility data shows that a return to the office peaked last year in May and June at around 17pc below pre-pandemic levels. However, office occupancy declined once again over the summer as strikes, coupled with the summer holiday season, kept workers away from the office.
During the last week of August and the first week of September, visits to offices across the UK fell to more than 30pc below pre-pandemic levels, according to the data, following a summer of strike chaos.
This rebounded back to 20pc below 2019 levels by October – still short of the peak return levels seen earlier in the year. In London, which has experienced some of the highest levels of remote working of any region in the UK, office occupancy remained stubbornly low at around 30pc below pre-pandemic levels.
Rachel Suff, senior employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says: “Many organisations have faced extensive employment relations challenges recently and the current incidents of industrial action have no doubt impacted on many people’s working habits.
“With several days of strike action on the railways and across other sectors, employers need to plan in advance to minimise the impact on their services or operations.”
The Centre for Economics and Business Research said that the three days of industrial action in June alone would cost the UK economy almost £100m, estimating that around 250,000 people would be unable to work owing to the disruption.
The UK is already facing a productivity crisis, with people leaving the labour market in droves and the output of those who remain stagnating. Strikes are only making things worse.