Only 12% of office workers have returned to Belfast city centre – Belfast Chamber survey

Only 12% of office workers have returned to Belfast city centre – Belfast Chamber survey

As Covid cases surge again in Northern Ireland, a survey of members by Belfast Chamber has revealed that just 12% of office-based businesses in the city are working full time from the office with more than a quarter still entirely working from home – impacting significantly on the passing trade for takeaway breakfast, lunch, coffee and food-to-go businesses in the city centre.

The survey of 238 members was conducted last week and also found that, on average, 35% of office-based workers are in the office on a typical day and that hybrid working is set to become the new norm with nearly 8 in 10 businesses saying that they will adopt such a model of working.

Belfast Chamber – which represents over 700 businesses in the city – has said that a series of short and long term interventions are required to help prevent the city from becoming a ‘ghost town’ and they have called on the Executive to amend its guidance on working from home after members cited it as the biggest impediment to a return to the office.

Belfast Chamber Chief Executive Simon Hamilton said, “Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Belfast, and its city centre especially, has been hit hard. Throughout lockdown, our TV screens and newspapers were full of images of normally bustling streets almost totally abandoned with the phrase ‘ghost town’ perhaps the most commonly used adjective.  Thankfully, many businesses are now open again and Belfast has got some of its buzz back.  However, one aspect of the city’s economy that has been noticeably slower to return is its office-based workers.

City’s economy in question

Our survey of over 200 office-based businesses poses some serious questions for the future of the city’s economy.  At present, only 12% of office-based businesses are back full time with an average of 35% of staff at their desks on any given day.  There is currently no certainty about when businesses believe their staff will be back in their offices and, with what has been a busy summer season due to end shortly and hybrid working becoming the new norm, many businesses are expressing concern that the city could quickly become a ghost town again.

Lots of business leaders that I speak to are keen to move towards a full return to the office or a new model of hybrid working, but, as this survey shows, they regularly cite the Executive’s current guidance that working from home should continue where possible as a barrier to them making progress. Over half of the businesses surveyed said that the Executive’s guidance is inhibiting their return to the office and Belfast Chamber urges Ministers to update their guidance as soon as possible.  Businesses have invested heavily and have implemented a wide range of procedures and systems to ensure staff safety in line with government advice. It is time that the guidance was changed to reflect this and the desire of businesses to safely bring staff back into the office.

Less vibrant

If Belfast is to see a reduction in footfall generated by office-based workers, then it only underscores the importance of reimagining the city centre and growing the city’s residential population as highlighted in Belfast Chamber’s 5 Priorities for putting Belfast on the road to recovery.  Accelerating how we make Belfast a more people centred centre with a focus on additional open and green space and a greater focus on the likes of leisure as well as a sizeable increase in city centre living is absolutely crucial to Belfast’s long-term success and even more so on the basis of this evidence.

A less vibrant, less busy city centre isn’t just bad for the many, many businesses who have hitherto relied on office-based workers for custom. It also impacts on Belfast’s attractiveness to talent, investment and tourists. Belfast Chamber has repeatedly stated that our city’s economy and the region that relies on it is an ecosystem.  Working from home has been incredibly useful during this time of crisis but being slow to see a return to the office, whether that be fully or hybrid, is not without ramifications for our economy and these survey findings need to be given the serious consideration it deserves and act accordingly”.