It could have been any other misty winter morning. At 7am last Thursday, City staff emerged from Cannon Street station and went straight to their favourite coffee shops before heading to work in the dense fog. “Isn’t this supposed to be the start of a lockdown?” asked one bemused barista. “It is so busy. This is nothing like the first lockdown.”
Since London’s first coffee house was opened in 1652 by an eccentric Greek named Pasqua Roseé, the City has been a focal point for people to meet, drink, gossip and strike deals.
Many of these coffee shops quickly transformed into makeshift offices as people flocked to them to exchange ideas and swap stories. The London Stock Exchange started in Jonathan’s Coffee House in Change Alley, while Lloyd’s of London is named after Edward Lloyd, a coffee house proprietor in Tower Street.
Names such as Milk Street, Bread Street, Ironmonger Lane and Cloth Fair all mark sites where companies began. The area remains a booming business centre, albeit one which forces almost everyone to commute in.
Much of the City’s hustle and bustle ceased earlier this year as the lockdown took effect, prompting Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey to say that he had been shocked by how empty London felt, arguing that the “fear” of commuting was holding back recovery. This time around, however, things felt rather different.
Security guards who spent the early months of the pandemic parading empty streets said the Square Mile felt surprisingly busy on Thursday. “I couldn’t believe how busy the tubes were this morning,” said one. Another added that the City felt almost back to normal just before the new restrictions came into force: “People are clearly fed up now and want to go back.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by many in Europe’s financial centre, even as the likes of Standard Chartered tell staff they can work wherever they want forever. Its closest rival HSBC, Europe’s biggest bank, has hinted that it is not far behind from making a similar announcement.
The pandemic has triggered discussions about office life being over, but a growing number of City workers, who are used to gossiping over their desks and sealing lucrative deals in heaving bars and restaurants, have grown tired of working from their living rooms. Even if nobody is forced back, the hope is that the once-buzzing financial district will still return to its former self.
“We’re not able to foster relationships [from home] like we did previously, when you might meet someone for a cup of coffee, then it’s five o’clock and you might go and have a beer with them,” says Paul Lynam, the chief executive of Secure Trust Bank.
“I’m not able to build trust-based relationships with people on a screen. Lots of people have been saying the office is dead, but I’ve been in this game 35 years and most of what I’ve learnt is from being in an office, looking at people and learning from people, and watching them make mistakes. You simply cannot replicate learning by osmosis.
“Being in an office for eight hours is being in a classroom by default. We have 1,000 people working for us and a large number of them, particularly the younger generation, are ringing us asking, ‘Can we come in?’”
But home working has been so successful that many companies are allowing staff to stay put – Standard Chartered told 75,000 employees last week they never had to work in an office again if they didn’t want to. The bank is also exploring a WeWork-style system where staff could work in an office near their homes.
Bankers insist suburban outposts will not end up replacing the City, no matter how much people enjoy the shorter commute. “I don’t believe for a moment firms will move their HQs because of repeated lockdowns,” says Alex Ham, co-chief executive of Numis. “In many ways, what this has highlighted is how strong a pull there is for people to be back in the office.”
He adds: “Many had just begun to find a new work rhythm, balancing working from home and being back in the office, and everyone was enjoying being able to see clients again.”
Property developers say they are also yet to see any signs that City-based outfits want to relocate. Richard Smart, CBRE managing director for London, says the real estate giant currently has 13 clients looking for office space of 100,000 sq ft or more in the City.
Although he expects many companies to offer flexible working after the pandemic, he isn’t concerned that the office is dead.
Instead, he believes “generic” offices will be out and in their place will be newly designed spaces that encourage people to come in for certain tasks.
Alex Chadwick, the London boss of law firm Baker McKenzie, which in July signed a lease for a new 150,000 sq ft office in the City, agrees that this is not the end of office life in the Square Mile: “We are seeing a clear expression from our people that they want to use our future office space as a hub for meetings, team collaboration and social interaction.”
The City’s 368-year-old run as the place financiers gather to network, gossip, close deals and discuss politics is clearly far from over. Once strict lockdown rules are lifted, many will be thinking it’s time to return.