“The workplace isn’t useless”: London seeks rebirth after COVID-19


London’s closed financial center is seeking a rebirth. While the COVID-19 pandemic sent nearly 540,000 City of London workers into their homes, officials are certain “the office is not dead,” Catherine McGuinness of the City of London Corporation told The Associated Press (AP ) on April 7th.

On the surface, London’s financial district appears to be a shell of its former self. Nobody rushes to meetings. Chairs are turned upside down on tables in closed cafes and pubs. The streets are eerily quiet on a bright spring morning.

At one point, however, there is a lot of activity as the builders are laying the foundation stone for the newest skyscraper to change the skyline. Named 8 Bishopsgate, the developers of the tower are confident that when construction is complete, workers and companies will return late next year to fill all 50 floors of the shiny new office space.

When the COVID-19 measures were implemented, nearly 540,000 workers disappeared almost overnight from the business hub known as the City of London, or simply the “City”. A year later, most of them did not return.

Epidemics, fires, war – London survived them all. But there has never been a year like this. Coronavirus disease has killed more than 15,000 Londoners and shook the foundations of one of the world’s largest cities. As a fast-paced mass vaccination campaign holds the promise of reopening, the AP is studying the impact of the pandemic on the people and institutions of London and asking what the future might look like.

While many believe that working from home is becoming the new normal, city planners say they are not worried about empty office buildings. Rather, they say that the uncertainties and changes are just a catalyst for the reinvention of one of the world’s leading financial centers.

“We are very confident that, from what we hear, the office is not dead,” said McGuinness, director of politics at the City of London Corporation, the governing body for the historic district.

“(Companies) tell us that they are genuinely interested in getting back to their offices, but they will use it in other ways,” she added. “You will build on some of these new ways of working that you have learned. “

It was a year like no other for the City of London, the old core of the capital and historically the richest and most powerful area. Another nickname is “The Square Mile,” an indication of its size. The district lies within the Roman walls of Londinium, the original name of the city founded around AD 50 on the banks of the Thames.

A January Mayor’s report on the future of London predicted that while businesses would not leave the capital, many would need to improve the quality of their office space to encourage more employees to return and use it.

The return of workers will be critical to the survival of many shops, restaurants, theaters, and museums. Although offices and city centers around the world emptied during the pandemic, London was particularly hard hit by the move to remote working in the report, as there are far fewer people living in the core of the city compared to New York or Paris.

Hubert Zanier, co-owner of a chain of Southeast Asian takeaway restaurants called Nusa Kitchen in the financial district, has been trying to keep his business going as all six branches are closed. Although it was technically allowed to open under the government’s virus restrictions, it was clear that it wasn’t an option as there was virtually no pedestrian traffic in the city.

“We were pretty hopeful when we first closed, but we didn’t know it was going to take 12 months with all the ups and downs – more lows than ups,” he said.

Zanier prepares to reopen as restrictions gradually ease. In the best-case scenario, 75% of employees return regularly in the summer.

“It is clear that the world will be different,” he said. “But you have to be optimistic – if you aren’t, you might as well pack up your things and go.”

Firms like Amazon recently stated that they are planning a return to a “office-centered culture”, although many studies, both in the UK and beyond, have indicated that more flexible working policies and increased remote working will remain here.

Like many others, Smriti Jha, a project manager at an investment bank, has barely set foot in her office since March 2020. The 45-year-old single mother recently switched jobs – she was interviewed and hired through Zoom – and her new workplace has no plan to return to the office. She doesn’t miss the overcrowded commute and sees a five-day week in the city as “a little excessive”.

“Before the pandemic, it was generally working mothers who chose to work from home,” she said. “There has always been this kind of stigma – is it like they actually work or not? But I think this will blow your mind. “

Right now, office developers and investors say they are not worried. Although office leasing slumped to record lows over the past year as many companies reevaluated their needs, demand appears to have recovered.

According to McGuinness, the City of London Corporation has already approved the equivalent of 80% of the planning applications submitted for office space last year in the first three months of 2021.

Two new skyscrapers are slated to open side by side in Bishopsgate soon, and every stress is equipped with spacious offices and a host of amenities to lure workers back.

At 62 stories, 22 Bishopsgate is the second tallest tower in the UK and dwarfs everything else nearby. It is considered “Europe’s first vertical village” and has a huge food hall and a fitness studio. 60% of the office space was already let to companies before the opening in autumn.

Together with the neighboring tower at 8 Bishopsgate, the two offer enough space for around 17,000 workers.

Kevin Darvishi, leasing director at Stanhope, the developer of 8 Bishopsgate, said demand for quality office buildings will continue to be strong in the post-pandemic world.

“In the end, there would be a two-tier market where older buildings are cut down significantly because they can’t meet the needs of the next generation of workers,” he said.

In a broader sense, authorities said, COVID-19 has also accelerated plans to make the financial district a friendlier, more diverse place, one that is more open to flexible working – and gives people a reason to stay after work.

More space is planned for pedestrians and cyclists as well as cheaper or more flexible workplaces that can attract people from the creative sector. By 2025, the City of London aims to see a 50% increase in weekend and evening visitor numbers.

“I hope we build positively. I hope we come out with a better concept of work-life balance, “said McGuinness. “This will be a new development.”