The Arcade Liverpool Street London

Why it’s not as simple as telling people to ‘get back to the office’

Along with most people, (especially after last weeks’ press on getting back to work) I’m finding the government’s messaging on encouraging people to return to the office very confusing. At a basic level, I don’t believe it’s the role of the government to be involved in this decision, it’s down to individual organisations and the employees, given that work is no longer constrained to taking place in one location, especially an office.

Heading into Liverpool Street in London last week I took a wander around to see if it was any busier than a few weeks ago. Given I was on a 08:20 am train, which is normally packed, I counted 12 people in two carriages so no need to fear the dreaded rush hour. Keeping things in context though, it’s August, a quiet time in London under normal circumstances, but not this quiet.

A few weeks ago, I was near Bank for a meeting and other than Pret and The Royal Exchange, many coffee shops were still closed. At Liverpool Street, there were people around but in very small numbers, only Costa had a queue and The Arcade was eerily quiet with only the cobbler open. However, there were small signs of life returning.

I had a chat with the newly opened Dartbrooke Coffee at The Arcade who revealed that customers were increasing, mainly as a result of colleagues telling each other about the business as they return to the office. They were hopeful September would bring more people into the city. In The Arcade, some cafes were open at lunchtime and others had ‘reopening September’ signs up giving hope that business would resume shortly. With Lloyd’s of London announcing today that they are reopening for the first time since March maybe we will slowly see a change.

Essentially, the City of London has more in common with a single industry place (such as university towns) being so heavily reliant on financial services and office workers. Over the years, retail has grown and there are a few tourist attractions, but without a more diverse make-up of its users, it’s hard to see how things will change, this year.

A BBC London news report from Leadenhall Market (popular with those in re/insurance) showed a sad place where takings are low and small businesses struggling. Having worked in the re/insurance sector it would have seemed inconceivable that employees could work from home (on mass). It was a traditional sector that relied on face-to-face contact. If this sector has adapted to working from home then more agile sectors were already doing so or heading in that direction. The Centre for London’s Economic Tracker (August) backed this up by showing that transport use is still low and many people are still not in the office.

There are the practicalities too. Clients have told me that they can’t physically fit all employees in the building with social distancing in place and the tall office buildings of the last decade with lifts present more challenges. Former colleagues are in the office one day a week, on a rota or have been given the choice as to whether they wish to return to the office or not.

We’ve talked about a shift to flexible working for years but the lack of trust seemed to linger as to what was happening away from the office. If Covid-19 has now reset this relationship, it’s a good thing. So many other aspects of life have changed, there’s an opportunity to adapt for the present and the future and what we certainly shouldn’t be doing is rushing back to a work model that perhaps belongs in the past.

I’ve returned to the office in the form of a local coworking space that’s just opened. Even as a regular home worker, it’s just been too long now without getting out and fellow coworkers shared similar views.

I’m curious to know how Manchester, Glasgow and other larger cities are faring having been marooned in London for so long this year and looking forward to getting out and about again soon.

If you’d like to discuss changes impacting town centres and high streets and how your place can adapt, get in touch.