To return or not to return

As several economies around the world start to reopen, returning to the office has been the theme of many a debate and discussion.

What will be the costs of reopening offices? What would be the changes needed to make the workplace Covid-secure? What would be the costs of implementing those changes? And most importantly, how would employees feel about coming back?

These and many more such questions have been keeping businesses up at the night ever since lockdown was imposed.  But now, the decision of whether to the open the offices or not has become more pressing as the rate of infections is contained but fears of a second wave remain.

Last week, the FT reported that Amundi, Schroders, Legal and General Investment Management and Ninety One are among the fund houses where staff are starting to return to buildings across London, while BNP Paribas Asset Management, BlackRock and Invesco are reopening offices in continental Europe.

On the other hand, M&G Investments, Jupiter, Janus Henderson and Invesco are among those that said their UK offices would remain closed for the time being.

Fund groups have stressed any reopening would comply with the Government guidance and is often being done on a “split team” or rotational basis, for example, with one team in the office the first week and another the second week.

But it’s not just firms which need to undertake every possible step to ensure the employees feel safe. It’s also about what office complexes and financial districts need to do. Last month, Canary Wharf drew up detailed plans to bring back tens of thousands of bankers, lawyers and accountants, including rules on lift capacity, one-way routes around the towers, and staggered working.

Looking at financial centres outside of the UK, from this week, New Yorkers will be able to return to the office. However, most of the companies are taking a cautious approach. Whilst some are keeping offices closed, others are opening at reduced occupancy. The city’s real-estate brokers and landlords say they anticipate only 10% to 20% of Manhattan’s office workers to return though they expect that figure to increase gradually over the summer.

Mary Ann Tighe, chief executive for the tri-state region at real-estate services firm CBRE Group Inc., said many New York City clients don’t plan on being fully back in the office before Labour Day in September.

In a recent global survey by trade group CoreNet Global, just 15% of companies said their office occupancy will be back to pre-pandemic levels within six months and 38% said it would take more than a year for everyone to be back.

In terms of employees’ willingness to return to the  offices, there are mixed viewpoints. Whilst some are looking forward to going to the office and feel that face-to-face conversations are very important, others are in no hurry to return.

Executive search firm Sainty, Hird & Partners surveyed about 700 senior financial services professionals in London, finding that the majority of those at investment banks have better mental health thanks to working from home. And more than half of all respondents said that remote working had improved their physical well-being. It would be interesting to see the results of such a survey for the fund management sector if it’s conducted now.

Whether more asset managers reopen their offices or not, is something we will find out in the coming weeks and months. But it is clear that they will need to robustly address employees’ concerns especially around commuting, working practices and physical well-being and mental health to ensure that the transition back to the office is as smooth as possible.

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Kapil Arya

Consultant, Lansons