Big banks based at Canary Wharf are trying to solve a problem keeping the rest of the east London financial district awake at night: how to get 120,000 people back to work.
“The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past,” Barclays chief executive Jes Staley recently admitted. The remarks by the head of one of Britain’s biggest banks demonstrates the pressing need to avoid cramming the Wharf’s skyscrapers with returning staff.
From facial recognition technology to on-site testing in lobbies and barriers inside lifts, experts say a pandemic makeover of Canary Wharf is required.
Bosses are keen to get staff back to offices as soon as possible, but employees will need reassuring that it is safe to do so, says Neil McLocklin at Knight Frank. “Workers will come back to a very different office, with perhaps every other desk vacant to allow social distancing - and very different behaviours.”
This will also mean re-evaluating high risk areas that could increase the potential of human-to-human transition, including crowded lifts, toilets and even coat cupboards, he says. From workstations and conference rooms to breakout areas and cafeterias, every corner of the office will need to be adapted.
Experts say that changes will be crucial for the financial services industry, in particular, where spaces like trading floors will need to be adapted to ensure the safety of employees.
“Given that the average distance between desks is 1.7 metres, for many, this could mean an office redesign – for instance moving desks further part, having alternate desks empty to avoid face-to-face contact or repurposing meeting rooms as additional desk space,” says Simon Venn of outsourcer Mitie.
More broadly, companies are rethinking communal areas and shared resources such as fruit bowls or magazines to minimise the spread of the virus, Venn says. “For example in bathrooms, screening between urinals may be needed, or for areas such as cafes, markers laid on the floor to ensure social distancing is maintained when queuing.”
Firms are also exploring ways to improve their policy for visitors, with some debating glass screens between guests and reception staff, or even virtual concierges with touchless registration, he adds.
One of the ways that offices are planning to reduce the risk of infection is through thermal imaging cameras, which help receptionists and security staff spot people with elevated temperatures. “We’ve installed some in Hong Kong and we’re starting to see significant interest in the UK, including in Canary Wharf,” says Jeremy Edwards of professional services firm Arup. The use of technology will need to be used alongside 24-hour working policies to stagger Canary Wharf’s large morning, lunchtime and evening peaks, he adds.
However, the real challenge for businesses will be logistics. Canary Wharf is served by the Jubilee Underground line and two Docklands Light Railway stations. Aside from office workers, Canary Wharf receives 40,000 daily visitors to more than 300 shops, bars and restaurants. Foot traffic in the busy hub could increase with the introduction of the Elizabeth Line (aka Crossrail), which is due to open in 2021.
This is where the City has an obvious advantage over Canary Wharf, says veteran property developer Sir Stuart Lipton. “City workers have seven railway stations and 12 Tube stations to choose from. Even if you cut the capacity on trains, there are a lot more stations,” he says. “The more transport systems you have, the easier it will be.”
Canary Wharf Group, which is owned by Qatar Investment Authority and Canada’s Brookfield, says it is in regular contact with Transport for London, as well as its tenants and Tower Hamlets council to ensure that social distancing and hygiene management are maintained throughout the Canary Wharf estate.
“Measures have been introduced throughout our retail areas, buildings and infrastructure spaces to ensure that visitors can remain safe whilst using the facilities and to enable our malls and public spaces to remain open,” says a spokesperson. These include a one-way system in the shopping areas and guided access points into One Canada Square, the estate’s tallest building.
Meanwhile, many experts hope the large-scale office closures will spur employers to rethink their environmental impact, with many predicting that mass remote working could become the norm. Some predict that businesses could give up as much as a fifth of their office space as part of a permanent shift towards more home working. Such a move would also reduce overhead costs and lower carbon emissions.
“Some level of remote working is obviously here to stay but there is no reason to think that workers will not return to the office,” says Alison Murrin at the law firm Ashurst. “In the longer term it is likely that building owners will need to focus more closely on what it means to have a good quality building. Before Covid-19 sustainability of the built environment was moving rapidly up the agenda - this is likely to become more important in a post-lockdown environment.”