What’s next for the banks and office spaces along London’s Canary Wharf as the city reopens after lockdown

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Canary Wharf and the city are seen at sunset in London, December 14, 2016. Reuters / Eddie Keogh
  • As cities begin to reopen after COVID-19 lockdowns, people are questioning if offices and large business buildings can safely resume operations and go “back to normal.”
  • The skyscrapers in London’s Canary Wharf are home to major banks, from HSBC to Barclays, that will be challenged to keep their employees safe and socially distanced upon their return.
  • Architects and building designers say that new technology, such as cleaning robots and self-sterilizing elevators, could be a huge help in maintaining a safe environment for workers.
  • Banks and major companies on Canary Wharf are also considering rotating schedules for workers to come into the office and focusing more on staffs’ mental health and wellbeing.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

As COVID-19 lockdown restrictions ease and people return to work, it’s hard to say what the future of the office will look like. For bankers used to working in open-plan offices in London’s high-end buildings and skyscrapers such as Canary Wharf, “normal” won’t return for a long while yet.

Individuals forced to work from home under lockdown could well prove to be a catalyst for industry-wide changes in office space and culture. The architects of Barclays’ Canary Wharf headquarters believe getting back in the office will be more difficult to piece together than pre-lockdown exit plans.

“Most companies will look at dropping the number of office work days or workers, but the issue of tall buildings is vertical circulation; that surge of people rising up a skyscraper at 8:30 a.m. and leaving at similar times,” David Weatherhead, a designer at the London studio of HOK, an international architecture engineering and interior design firm, told Business Insider.

Solving for social distancing and contamination

A major concern is how to repurpose spaces in banking headquarters and trading floors for social distancing while maintaining the “flow of information” between workers. HOK’s Director of Workplace Kay Sargent uses design to transform how and where people work. She said that they must avoid “knee-jerk reactions,” such as installing plastic screens that act like “sponges” for bacteria.

“Some companies have panicked and are going backwards,” Sargent said. The key is to get “the bad stuff” out of buildings and circulate fresh air into buildings, she added.

Tautvydas Karitonas, head of research at decontamination company Inivos, said that technology should aid the risk of manually cleaning office spaces. Cleaning robots and self-sterilizing elevators could be part of that solution.

“We need to make sure that any claims lifts and robots are making are validating,” Karitonas said. “Robots in healthcare settings are there, but we need the right level of efficacy.”

Banks may have big cleaning budgets, but they must cast their eye to the small details. “Are the chemicals sprayed even safe? That’s what they need to ask,” Karitonas said.

Rotating schedules and the push for continued remote work

Bustling trading floors have been silenced since March’s lockdown. But even with mass remote working in place, the coronavirus won’t spell the end of the shiny high-rise office block. “After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, people said we’d never go back to tall buildings. Well, we did. And we will again,” Sargent said.

Lee Elliot, Knight Frank’s global head of occupier research, agrees. “We’re still investing in offices predominantly and that won’t change in the post-COVID-19 landscape,” he said.

Elliot estimated that there will typically be about a 1.4 metre to 1.6 metre gap between staff at Canary Wharf. This means that as companies start to unlock their offices, they will only be able to occupy up to 60% of office space.

Banks could opt for rotating teams of workers going into the office. One group works in the office for a short period while the rest work at home. In between rotation changes, office spaces are deep cleaned before paving way for a new group of coworkers. Splitting into teams limits the amount of space that needs to be cleaned, and can also limit disruption on the organisation. Should one person contract coronavirus symptoms, the immediate small group can quarantine at home rather than the whole company.

Who big banks decide to leave out of the office and who they bring back is a highly politicized topic. It could “alienate” some staff, said Elliot. It’s a situation that’s posed a headache for Robin Hobbs, who’s job as head of risk at investment bank BSC Global is to ensure who and how people come back in.

Like many others in the industry, Hobbs said remote working has been a surprising success. But he points out that not having staff on the trading floors poses cybersecurity risks. “In the working-from-home environment, there is increased risk from malware [phishing] attacks. People having devices that can be listened to from their homes. It’s better to go back into the office.”

Whether staff in Britain’s banking industry will want to go into the office is uncertain. Hobbs misses “water-cooler chats where you get information that’s important,” but worries about taking public transport. Others also worry about jumping back on London Underground and travelling to work packed like sardines.

Alex Prager won’t be taking his one hour and 15 minute commute from north London into the East End at least until next year. His fintech firm Broadridge Financial Solutions, based side by side with Canary Wharf’s big banks, has already announced plans to allow remote work until January 2021.

“It’s quite brave to do,” said Prager. “Now I know I can invest in a coffee machine at home and a desk chair instead of using a dining room chair.”

His firm’s bold approach has “given people room to plan,” he said, including giving him breathing room to make a decision on whether to take his four-year-old child back to kindergarten.

The traditional, larger banks have not been so quick off the mark. HSBC, Barclays, and JP Morgan were unable to provide comment on any short- or long-term office plans.

Deutsche Bank told Business Insider in an email statement that employees working from home “have been asked to continue to do so for the time being,” with “seating arrangements and building access points are being very carefully planned as we phase people carefully and gradually back into the office over time.”

With approximately 70,000 people working in the Canary Wharf area and the added hassle of private residential estates next to offices, banks face major planning challenges. The streets and roads around Canary Wharf pose additional headaches.

“Canary Wharf was designed at a time when people drove to work with underground car parks. What do we do with that space? Nothing is static. Canary Wharf put an area on the world map, but now we’ll see how it evolves,” said architect Weatherhead.

The banking world opens up to new ways of approaching mental health

As spaces reopen, better mental health awareness will be “another frontier” of focus due to greater office space available, according to Elliot. Spaces could include using conference rooms as breakout areas and sanctuary spots. “It sounds new age, but if you look at the history of banking, you see high suicide rates and pressure. So you need space to help people go through challenges,” he said.

But that’s not to say banking lags behind on the topic. In 2018, Morgan Stanley recruited a top doctor as its chief medical officer to improve staff wellbeing.

David Mitchell, HSBC’s development manager, spearheads a mindfulness network at the bank. He said that the bank is “super mental health aware,” but “if anything people could be more anxious now. You can’t notice that remotely.”

Stanley fears for younger people who rely on their workplace for social interaction, more so than older colleagues with families.

As just 7% of communication comes through words, and the rest via body language, tone, and emphasis, permanent virtual communication could damage staff development.

Companies in other industries closely linked to finance are looking for swift action. An employee at one of the “Big Four” accountancy firms said his work depends on how banks respond in the next year. Just like staff at big banks, he fears that staff working remotely “could easily be lost in big organisations.”

Wishing to remain anonymous, he fears the global firm could look at staff unkindly should they become infected.

“For myself and my teams, if we carried COVID-19 and it could be traced back to us, it could be detrimental to our brand. We’d do everything we can to avoid that scenario,” he said.

The future of office space is still uncertain

Empty office spaces will most certainly be around for a while longer yet. In the world of banking, vacant desks could lead to robots taking charge.

“We have big banking clients with millions of square feet of space with analysts. That could be replaced by artificial intelligence and automation,” Weatherhead said.

For Weatherhead, any revolution post lockdown will involve using spaces “smarter.” Automation could help reduce footfall and carbon emissions with fewer people commuting into the office.

And what of the spaces left empty for so long by banks and other businesses across London’s shiny buildings?

Fewer in-office workers should allow ample space for breakout areas to freely communicate and think, resembling the way children use floor spaces in kindergarten to play and interact with their peers.

“Kindergarten is a space where we learned and where we have had a community. We need to go back to that in a way, to our childhoods. That’s the future,” said Sargent.

The future of office spaces, for banks and indeed for many others, will never go back to how it was.

“People are talking about ‘the new normal,'” Sargent said. “We prefer to talk about the new now. There is no normal anymore.”