Almost all of 50 of the UK's biggest employers questioned by the BBC have said they do not plan to bring staff back to the office full-time.

Some 43 of the firms said they would embrace a mix of home and office working, with staff encouraged to work from home two to three days a week.

Four firms said they were keeping the idea of hybrid working, working from home some of the time, under review.

However, that is likely to change in June when the government hopes to end all social distancing restrictions.

"We're never going to go back to working the way we used to work," said Mark Read, chief executive of advertising firm WPP.

But the new ways of using the office require careful planning, he told the BBC.

"People are working from home three to four days a week so we probably need 20% less space, but we're not going to do that if everyone's working from home on Mondays and Fridays."

Mark Read
image captionWPP boss Mark Read said he worries about the long-term impact on the company culture

Other companies cite "smart working" and "flexibility" as reasons for introducing hybrid working, with many suggesting that workers would be able to make their own choices about how often they come into the office.

Danny Harmer, chief people officer at insurance giant Aviva - which has 16,000 UK workers - said 95% of its workers said they'd like to be able to spend some of their time working flexibly and remotely in different locations.

But he said it had to be mindful that many staff appreciates being in an office, such as staff who live alone or don't have a suitable place to work.

Recruitment firm Adecco, which has 34,000 UK workers, said about four-fifths of its staff now work remotely.

"Rather than having pre-set rules we are encouraging our leaders to engage with colleagues to implement strategies that work for their business," it said.

The BBC questioned 50 big employers, ranging from banks to retailers, to get an idea of when workers may return to the office.

The firms contracted by the BBC covered 1.1m workers in the UK.

Reopening offices

Businesses that depend on custom from office workers - such as cafes and restaurants - are keen for them to return as soon as possible.

Joao Almeida
image captionJoao Almeida, from Panda Cup Coffee, relies on office workers for trade

"We rely really heavily on the office trade," Joao Almeida, of Panda Cup Coffee, in London's Blackfriars, told the BBC. He's one of the millions of people unable to work from home during the pandemic.

"There are locations that have 5,000 people, but only 140 come to the building with most working from home or maybe once a week coming in. That makes it really difficult."

Carl Forder, who owns the Pottergate Pantry sandwich shop in Norwich. saw an 80% drop in business when workers, including 5,000 at the nearby Aviva office, we're told to work from home where possible.

"We really hope a lot more office workers return to Norwich when it's safe for them to do so.

"It affects a lot of businesses, from the cleaners who clean the offices, right through to coffee shops and sandwich bars. We want that buzz back again."

But there may not be a deluge of workers returning this month.

The companies told the BBC they are opening offices "in line with government guidance", which means many plans to reopen offices from 21 June.

Some have already reopened their offices to a limited number of workers.

Investment firm JP Morgan and recruiter Michael Page allowed workers to return from 29 March, while Adecco, recruiter Hays Group and WPP reopened offices on 12 April.

Investment firm Rathbones has allowed workers to return "if they wish" subject to a 25% capacity.

WPP reopened its UK offices at a 30% capacity but is increasing that to 50% this month.

Many have given workers the choice, with Michael Page saying staff could return to the office "should they choose to do so".

Meanwhile, software firm the Sage Group said: "Colleagues can request to work from the office if they feel unable to do so effectively at home."

But some other companies are delaying their office re-opening plans.

Outsourcing giant Capita said workers have been told they will work from home until at least the end of the second quarter while Lloyds Bank has asked staff to stay at home until at least the summer.

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'Dreading it' or 'can't wait - what do workers think?

David Kimberly
image captionDavid Kimberly: "It's depressing waking up and commuting to your kitchen."

Tom, who works in property, is not looking forward to going back to the office. The commute is long, expensive, uncomfortable, and unnecessary, he told the BBC.

"My office is modern and seemingly comfortable. But the culture can be difficult and the false familiarity is suffocating. It's a petri dish of anxiety and breeding ground of mental health issues."

He says working at home is more comfortable.

"The technology enables a more inclusive model of working where information is shared more easily and talent can shine. There's also more time for family and more time for real friends."

In contrast, David Kimberly said he "couldn't wait". He returned to the stockbroker's office he works at two weeks ago.

"There's something healthy about having a psychological separation between your work and home life. I find that hard to do when I'm working from home," he told the BBC.

"There's something quite gloomy, especially in winter, about working from home, and it's depressing waking up and commuting to your kitchen.

"It also makes it much harder to collaborate. I work closely with another member of the team and in the office we can sort things out in seconds, When working from home it can take 10 minutes to get a response, and you have no real idea about how they're feeling as you can't see them gauge their emotions."

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Shutting sites

Only a few of the companies surveyed by the BBC have been shutting offices, with some saying they will wait until leases run out.

Capita has closed 49 out of 294 of its offices since the start of the pandemic while accountants Deloitte has closed offices at Gatwick, Liverpool, Nottingham, and Southampton.

Lloyds Bank said it plans to close 20% of its offices over the next three years while NatWest closed its Regent House, London office last summer, in a move that had been planned, but speeded up by the pandemic.

Newspaper group Reach has closed its district offices as part of a move to a hub-based model. It has been left with 15 large offices or 'hubs'.

Meanwhile, Welsh Water closed its head office last year.

But not all are keen on the move away from offices.

WPP boss Mark Read said: "I worry about the long-term impact on the enterprise, on our culture, on collaboration, on how we train people, on how we develop people.

"Advertising and creative industries are something you learn from your colleagues and you can only do that, really, if you're around them in an office."

Google says it expects about 20% of its workforce to still work remotely after its offices reopen this fall, while some 60% will work a hybrid schedule that includes about three days in the office and two days “wherever they work best.”

The remaining 20% can change their location to a different Google office.

The policy announced Wednesday relaxes the company’s stricter earlier stance.

“The future of work is flexibility,” CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in an email to employees that was also posted on Google’s website. “The changes above are a starting point to help us do our very best work and have fun doing it.”

Most of Google’s 135,000 employees can continue to work from home through September of this year.

For up to 20 days per year, Google employees will also be able to work from any location other than their main office. That’s up from a previous allotment of 10 days.

The company based in Mountain View, California, will also continue offering extra “reset” days — days off to help cope with the pandemic.

Google was among the first major technology companies last year to tell its employees to work from home at the onset of the pandemic. Other tech giants, such as Facebook and Twitter, have announced that people can work from home permanently after the pandemic if their jobs allow for it.