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Back to the future office

Firms are grappling with how to use their offices after months of homeworking. The office isn’t dead but don’t expect it to be the same.

asian chinese white collar worker back to work after quarantine with new SOP and social distancing illness prevention safety precautions
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The office is a way of life for workers in the City of London and across the financial industry, but the coronavirus crisis has prompted radical rethinking.

Many employees have enjoyed the benefits of working from home, including less time commuting and fewer distractions. Bosses’ concerns about slacking and low productivity have been soothed, and the technology – whether Zoom for meetings or internal systems – has generally worked.

The genie is out of the bottle and EC3 is no exception. Insurance Insider reported in Junethat many London firms were reconsidering office requirements after trading successfully from remote locations during the crisis.

Insurance Insider’s snap survey showed a third of (re)insurance professionals were not considering a return to EC3 until 2021, indicating fundamental change was afoot. Firms are preparing for a future when employees work from home about half the week.

Jason Howard, chief executive of Beach Group, says his company’s experience during lockdown made him more open to the idea of working away from the office.

“Part of me thought that we might encounter operational issues with our entire workforce operating remotely, but what we’ve seen is that without a commute and the distractions of the office, people have worked harder than before,” Howard explains.

Rethinking space

Confirming the findings from Insurance Insider’s survey, Beach is among those rethinking how much space it needs in London.

Howard adds: “We were thinking about taking another floor in our building but we are not going to do that anymore. I just don't see how, with the ability to work more flexibly, we are going to have 100% occupancy.”

Scor is also looking at optimising its office space in London. Malcolm Newman, managing director of Scor’s Europe, Middle East and Africa hub, says: “We have two buildings in London with 100 people in one and 350 in the other. If we can organise ourselves more flexibly we can change the way we use the buildings.”

Interestingly, the impetus for this rethink is not being driven by those at the top but by the employees lower down the chain.

Newman explains: “We have to cater for what employees want or we are not a competitive employer. It’s not just to please the employees though: we have to keep the organisation running. We’re able to do the things we did as before. In some cases it takes longer but in some cases employees are giving us their commuting time for free, and they are doing longer days in front of a screen.”

The future is fluid

Chris Lay, Marsh’s chief executive for the UK and Ireland, points out that people are returning to the company’s 60 offices in stages, and 40% capacity will be the maximum while observing the two-metre distancing guidance. Beyond that point, things are fluid.

“We are providing flexibility which is the key word for us in some hybrid future,” Lay says.

The common theme is that the office will still survive but its role will change. “Collaboration” and “social” are words that spring up regularly. Leaders say more space will be allocated to these activities with day-to-day business increasingly done outside the office.

Lay adds: “What we’ve learnt is that we don’t need an office to renew an insurance policy, but there are some things the office appears to be valuable for such as collaboration and creativity.

“Some training and development can be very informal and can’t be done online. You’re not going to organize Zoom to have the 30-second conversations you can have if your boss is sitting a couple of metres away.”

Ultimately, leaders are keen to preserve the EC3 ecosystem that has made London a global hub. They also say a physical presence is vital for employees building a network, whereas a long-established market professional may be able to keep up their contacts online.

Keep the cluster

“The fact we have got a cluster is a big advantage for London but if you work remotely there is no cluster,” explains Newman, who also chairs the International Underwriting Association (IUA) of London.

“IUA webinars have doubled the attendance that we had when we were in a room, but there are no coffee breaks or exchanges of business cards and that makes it harder for people to expand their networks.”

There are lots of details to be worked out and interests to balance. There will be fewer desks, but some employees with cramped or difficult home environments may still want to come in every day. Lay notes that employees are using mobile phones rather than landlines and Marsh has removed personal items from desks to reduce the risk of infection.

Leaders also point out that working from home can create its own pressures for employees, with many working flat-out in a form of online presenteeism.

“People want to be seen to be responsive in a way they wouldn’t be if they were in the office and that can cause stress,” Newman says.

As with everything related to Covid-19, the future of the office is uncertain. But working 9-5, five days a week will be rare. Instead, going to the office could become something to savour.

“People will be looking forward to going to the office to interact, brainstorm and have fun rather than thinking: ‘It’s a cold Monday morning and I’ve got to get the early train,” Howard explains.