Another minister said: “There is a concern that if people are doing their job from home, you might as well have someone doing the job from home in a foreign country where labour costs are much cheaper. It’s not so much about the cost of office space, because a lot of firms are in long-term leases anyway – it’s more about the wage bill.”
Kevin Ellis, chairman and senior partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the big four accounting firms, said: “Office life is core to our business. You can do lots of things remotely, but it’s not always quite the same. Ultimately people learn through observation, and learning is what powers a service-based business.”
The big four – which also comprises EY, KPMG and Deloitte – hire thousands of graduates and school-leavers each year, with a large cohort arriving in the autumn months.
Tamzen Isacsson, the chief executive of the Management Consultancies Association, said the outlook for the consulting sector is “broadly stable and positive” but pointed to some struggles faced by firms.
She said: “Building relationships with new clients on new projects is difficult when you’re just on the phone… it’s not as easy to maintain team morale, and dynamics.”
Tej Parikh, the chief economist at the Institute of Directors, said: “Remote working has undoubtedly worked better than expected for many firms, but we can’t ignore the potential downsides.
“It can present a real challenge in terms of onboarding new recruits and for staff development, much of which often depends on informal office interactions. If issues like these aren’t dealt with, they could eat away at productivity.”
The ONS survey of 24,500 businesses found manufacturing firms had suffered the most, with 46 per cent experiencing declines, followed by 39 per cent of property companies and 34 per cent of those based in professional, scientific and technical industries.
Just 12 per cent of firms believe productivity has increased during lockdown, while 52 per cent reported no effect.