Despite a tentative easing of the national lockdown, the lingering economic and social consequences of this policy are frighteningly obvious to anyone venturing into central London.
While social life and economic activity has, to a large extent, returned to the outer zones and suburbs, the offices and shops of London’s professional districts remain eerily and worryingly quiet.
Newly pedestrianised streets may be tempting some customers back to the pubs, cafes and restaurants of Zone One. But welcome as this is, it amounts to a mere trickle in place of what was previously a mighty tide of people coming in and out the City, the West End, Canary Wharf, King’s Cross and the capital’s other commercial and business districts.
The situation in the UK is stark when compared with other European countries. According to new research by Morgan Stanley, just 30 per cent of UK workers are doing five days a week at their place of work.
In Italy it’s 40 per cent; in Spain it’s 41 per cent; 49 per cent of Germans are doing a full working week in the office; and 50 per cent of French workers have returned full time. The UK also has the lowest number of people choosing to do between one and four days in the office.
The government has formally dropped its ‘work from home’ advice but more than a week after that guidance changed the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, was asked about the ghost towns and empty business districts. He acknowledged the scale of the problem and said “we need to get back into them.”
If the government really wanted to hammer this message home, it could do so. Instead, it appears to be gripped by fears of a second wave and is more than happy to let businesses ride out the rest of the year with staff working remotely. On top of a looming unemployment crisis, this approach will have dire consequences for jobs and livelihoods in city centres like London and areas of high density offices.
The absence of the human tide risks leaving a parched landscape devoid of the countless personal and professional interactions that give life to a city and purpose to its people.
London faces an economic emergency outside the office
While more flexible working and, of course, a necessary appreciation of public health concerns, will change the way we think about work in the months and years ahead, an economic emergency is unfolding on streets that used to serve millions of commuters and residents.
The Centre for Economic and Business Research calculates that around £2.3bn of spending in shops, pubs and restaurants around the capital’s main business districts was lost or displaced between March and June.
The think-tank also predicts that throughout next year 30 per cent of London-based employees will still be working from home on any given day, resulting in nearly £180m of lost spending on lunch, socialising and other office-related services each month.
There’s little point denying that once the pandemic has passed people will almost certainly work from home more than they used to.
And no business should fear a new approach that allows staff more freedom and flexibility, especially not if recent months have proven just how much work can be achieved away from the office. But this is different to the sudden and forced starvation that our business districts are enduring.
In too many places, life has simply disappeared.
It’s encouraging, therefore, that Barclays chief executive Jes Staley and PwC’s Kevin Ellis have both publicly recognised that they have a responsibility to the places where their staff work.
It’s time for City workers to step up
New research by the Legatum Institute shows that while just 16 per cent of people working in financial services have been negatively impacted by the pandemic and lockdown, the figure for hospitality workers is over 80 per cent. The former must be able to do their bit to help the latter.
Employers will rightly feel that their first responsibility is to their staff. But there must be a recognition that sustaining and supporting the myriad small businesses, retailers, restaurants, pubs and service providers that draw a living from the presence of people is a matter of real importance.
City A.M. believes it is now absolutely essential that businesses do all they can to start bringing staff back into their places of work, safely.
The view is shared by London mayor Sadiq Khan, who says “getting businesses and venues thriving in central London once again should now be an urgent priority”.
The mayor adds that “if more people aren’t confident the virus is under control, our wonderful ecosystem of shops, bars, cafes and cultural venues is at risk of a damaging slump that could take years to recover from.”
Our position is also supported by the Lord mayor of the City of London, the Right Honourable William Russell, who says “we support the aim of encouraging Londoners to return to work safely in the City”, adding “we want to get the Square Mile back on its feet as quickly as possible in a safe and sustainable manner, in line with government guidance.”
London’s leading business groups also join our call for employers to do all they can to bring about a safe return to offices. Richard Burge of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry says: “The time has come to focus on and talk about what we can do rather than what we cannot.”
He adds that employers must put in place new office routines and work patterns that give staff “even greater access to the extraordinarily diverse retail, hospitality, and cultural offerings of London.”
Some London employers eye a September return to offices
Such a shift cannot be implemented overnight, but the right processes and risk-management strategies should allow larger employers in particular to begin the task of bringing people back together.
Many employers are already preparing for innovative shift patterns, flexible work, new office layouts and safe working practices. At the very least, companies should be actively preparing for such a transition, to be deployed when they feel the time is right. We applaud those firms doing just that.
Sadiq Khan is also hopeful that more and more people will come back to central London offices after an August break, saying: “I hope to see more employees returning to the capital from September. A huge amount of work is being done by businesses to make their offices safe, whether around office layouts, one-way systems, or enhanced cleaning and hygiene.”
Canary Wharf ‘open for business’
More than 120,000 people work in Canary Wharf. At least, they used to.
The chief executive of the Canary Wharf Group, Shobi Khan, is confident that now is the time to bring people back.
“We’ve planned carefully to ensure that Canary Wharf is a safe, clean and socially distanced environment, in line with government guidelines, to accommodate large numbers of people as they return to the office,” he tells me.
“Everything is in place, and we are very much open for business – for office life to resume, and for companies to bring their people together to interact and rebuild that essential social capital; for the network of businesses that support them to flourish once more; and for the safe return to the spaces in which we work, eat, shop, exercise and socialise, and on which the life of our city is built.”
For Shobi Khan, there is more to this than a question of productivity or retail footfall.
“A company is as strong as its people, and for companies to thrive and grow they need their people to interact, collaborate, be creative, spark ideas and learn from each other through personal interaction,” he explains.
“Companies can survive when their employees are working at home, but that is largely because they are living off the social capital they have accrued over years. Five months into the pandemic, that capital is being rapidly depleted. How will they nurture their employees and grow their businesses? It’s very hard to do that via conference calls alone.”
L&G: Offices can boost Londoners’ mental health
Another major employer who refuses to accept that the days of the office are numbered is Legal and General, whose chief executive Nigel Wilson says that while home-working will remain the norm for most people in his company until the end of this year, “the death of the office has been greatly exaggerated”.
He says that over the past few weeks they’ve been trying hard to make their London offices available to staff who want to come in, even occasionally, because he believes in “recognising the benefits to collaboration and mental wellbeing.”
He also echoes Barclays and PwC when he says he “recognise[s] that where our people are working impacts those local economies; we want to support these communities as well as taking care of the wellbeing of our people.”
Paul Dreschler of London First said that he expects to see a “a step up in the return to London’s workplaces” in September. Such a move would “be a shot in the arm for the many businesses which rely on commuters and workers’ spending and will provide a boost for the UK economy which relies on the capital to provide around a quarter of the nation’s growth”, he adds.
Dreschler also highlights a concern, often cited, about an apparent reluctance to use public transport, and he calls on operators “to boost confidence in the transport system”.
Tube and buses now cleaner than ever
Public health authorities in Paris, Tokyo and Austria have failed to detect any link between their public transport networks, including subways, and any of the recently identified spikes in infection rates.
A report in the New York Times suggested mitigation efforts on public transport have been key to reducing transmission, with public health experts identifying mandatory masks, regular use of disinfectant and staggered commuter times as being particularly effective.
Transport for London (TfL) is utilising all three of these tools, and its commissioner, Andy Byford, insists that customers returning to the Tube and buses “are seeing a cleaner, more orderly network than ever”.
He says the deployment of hospital-grade disinfectant and more than 1,000 hand sanitiser stations has “resulted in independent research returning negative tests for coronavirus on high-frequency touch points”.
Faced with the prospect of more commuters returning to their London offices from September, Byford says his message to everyone is that they’re doing everything to keep things clean and safe. “We are here to help and to keep London moving,” he says.
Out of office: The economic cost for London grows by the day
While it’s clear that there are obstacles to overcome, not least a clear commitment from the government on a full return to school in September, the economic and social cost of cutting ourselves off from our places of work is growing by the day.
The longer we stay away from offices, the deeper the damage to London. Everyone should be mindful of the risk posed by a resurgence of infections, but we must also hope for the best and be ready to facilitate the vital economic and personal connectivity of which we have been so starved since the end of March.
Canary Wharf’s Shobi Khan is adamant that “there’s much more to the commercial life of a major world city like London than simply what goes on inside an office”. He says: “It’s everything that surrounds the office too – the coffee and sandwich shops; the health clubs and dry cleaners; the fashion and food stores, the bars and restaurants where you meet after work.”
“These are the places that people rely on and bring them together, which provide the social and cultural foundation of a city, and make London the vibrant capital that it needs to be again,” he adds.
All of us have had to adapt to the circumstances this pandemic has created, but we must now focus on how to restore and nurture what was here before it.
An earlier version of this story cited JP Morgan as the source for European office data, an error which has since been corrected.