The morning flow of commuters arriving at Canary Wharf, London’s financial district, was a trickle on Tuesday rather than the torrent traditionally associated with the end of summer return to work.
Sparse numbers of suited and smartly dressed workers emerged from the underground station, clutching their morning takeaway coffees, destined for the corporate headquarters of banks, financial services companies and law firms.
It was, however, busier than it has been. “There were bigger numbers of people on the tube today,” said Gogoro Nwinia, an estate agent at LiFE Residential, who felt his morning commute was the busiest he had experienced since he returned to the office in early July.
The Canary Wharf Group, which owns the private estate in east London, is expecting more workers to return in September, but declined to speculate on numbers.
In July, it was estimated that under 10% of the 120,000 workers based in the area had returned to their desks, and the group’s executive chairman, Sir George Iacobescu, has called on businesses to return.
“We reopened three weeks ago and every week we have seen improvement,” said a barista at Black Sheep Coffee, an independent chain with two outlets in the area, adding trade still stands at around a quarter of the levels seen before the pandemic.
Demand for shoe repairs has also picked up in the past few weeks, said David James, the owner of cobbler chain James Shoe Care and City of London Dry Cleaners, which has encouraged him to trial a reopening of a further outlet in the district.
However, business remains 75% down and he has already made seven of his 27 staff redundant.
“Our customers have changed – the office workers have gone and now it’s people coming shopping. The ‘eat out to help out’ scheme drew people here in August,” James said, adding that he has received support from his landlord, the Canary Wharf Group.
UK office workers have been far slower to return to their desks, than their European counterparts, according to analysis from US bank Morgan Stanley’s research unit AlphaWise.
Latest figures show that just over a third (37%) of white-collar workers in the UK are back at the office, compared with over three-quarters of employees in Germany, Italy and Spain, and 84% in France.
As the lunch hour began, queues started to form at the many grab-and-go sandwich, salad and sushi shops which serve Canary Wharf’s thousands of workers. However, several outlets including Mexican restaurant Wahaca and Birley Sandwiches remain closed.
It was a similar story in the Spinningfields area of Manchester – normally heaving with office workers – which remained quiet with empty cafes and restaurants on Tuesday lunchtime. Surrounding buildings also remained largely unoccupied.
Halima Khardani, from the Nudo sushi bar in the centre of Manchester’s business district, served just a handful of customers but said she hoped it would get busier in the coming weeks.
“The ‘eat out to help out’ scheme has helped to keep us fairly busy but now that has finished. We have seen a few regular customers coming back – they work in offices around here – but not that many,” said the 27-year-old. “I hope they will start to come back in soon.”
Walking nearby, colleagues Daniel Travis-Brown, Lauren Mattinson and David Anderson said they had been back in their offices for around a month.
Travis-Brown, the managing director of Gorilla Marketing, said there had been some real benefits to seeing colleagues and clients face to face.
“It was a bit creepy at first, like a ghost town – and then there were different approaches with some people wearing full-on masks and others not doing anything but it’s definitely starting to get busier,” said the 31-year-old. “We’ve actually just come out of a meeting and secured a new client. This particular client is quite old school and we would not have got that business had we not met in person so there are definite plus points,” he added.
But the three colleagues empathised with those who did not want to return to their offices, saying workers should be able to choose whether they continue to work from home.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” said father-of-three Anderson. “You don’t want to take a risk with people’s health so you need to let them decide whether they come back in,” he added.
Meanwhile, Michel Collins, assistant manager at the 20 Stories restaurant in the city centre, hoped the office workers in the surrounding buildings would return to work soon.
“We’ve had a fairly steady trade in the evening – it’s even been quite busy at the weekend – but in the day it is very quiet still and it would be good to see the place busy at lunchtime again,” he said.
Source: The Guardian