Things have changed beyond recognition in the City of London. Take a lunchtime stroll down Cheapside towards the Bank of England, walk on to Cornhill, then across Leadenhall Street, and it’s the same everywhere you go: empty pavements, deserted shops and silent sandwich bars. Where once there were people, an eerie calm now prevails.
Yes, it’s August. So everyone is on holiday, aren’t they? But Covid-19 is the main reason, of course, for the conspicuous absence of bodies since most offices in the square mile continue to operate with little more than skeleton staff numbers.
Andrew Bailey, governor of the Bank of England, is among the most prominent voices encouraging companies to get staff back at their desks soon in order to help revive the faltering economy. The hope is that when schools finally reopen, it will precipitate a much larger return of workers to the City’s gleaming towers of steel and glass. But whether a trickle becomes a September flood remains to be seen.
Because of coronavirus concerns, Carlyle recently told its employees to avoid using public transport in their commute to work when the firm’s London office reopens. The policy also applies to Carlyle’s 30 other offices around the world – and if staff use public transport at weekends, then they must stay at home for 14 days.
The general expectation is that scientists will create a vaccine that eventually allows normal life to be restored, perhaps next year. However, the City’s big beasts have begun to think longer term. Banks, accounting firms and asset managers are busily rewriting their rule books to take account of the brave new world that awaits beyond coronavirus.
Among those who have already gone public with their plans are PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the FTSE-100 listed fund manager, Schroders. Taking a quantum leap from the office-based culture that has predominated in the City for generations, PwC, which employs 22,000 staff in the UK, predicts that most of its employees will permanently shift to a more even split of home and office working.
PwC’s chairman, Kevin Ellis, has explained: “There’s no question that lockdown has done away with presenteeism. It’s shown many business leaders that their people can be productive, engaged and happy working from home.” Meanwhile Schroders has told its staff that even after the Covid-19 emergency has passed, they will not be required to return to the office full time.
As a broad swathe of financial firms now indicate that their staff will work remotely for at least the rest of this year, some are instituting permanent changes in recognition of the inevitable: five-days-a-week office working will never return. This trend also extends beyond financial services. BP is mulling over radical reconfiguration plans, which could nearly halve its property portfolio in some locations by shifting nearly 50,000 employees into remote and flexible working.
So what about the tens of thousands of lawyers working at City law firms? Pre-Covid, the legal sector already had a fair number of alternative service providers centred on the working from home (WFH) model while most law firms had instituted one day a week WFH as part of their flexible working policy.
But the pandemic has proved beyond question that the legal sector has been among the most resilient to its impact. Most law firms can operate very successfully on a sustained WFH model using regular MS Teams and Zoom video-conferencing in place of face-to face meetings – without any notable hit to revenues or profits, as evidenced by the spread of annual financial results published over the summer.
And most lawyers want to continue WFH, according to research undertaken by Hitachi Capital UK, which found that 61% of legal staff want much greater WFH opportunities once coronavirus has been vanquished. The widespread desire for much greater WFH after the pandemic has gone was confirmed by a RollOnFriday survey of over 2,500 lawyers and law firm staff. It found that 10% wanted to spend zero days in the office; 44% wanted 1-2 days; 35% – 3-4 days; while only 10% wanted to remain on the five days a week model.
Nevertheless, law firms remain circumspect. Although they have made no public statements that can be interpreted as overt compulsion to go back to the office, and returning is labelled by most as entirely voluntary, there is equally no sense that they are keen to follow the path laid out by PwC or Schroders.
The general tone is set by Allen & Overy, which began letting limited numbers back to its City base in June.
The London office will reopen from 7th September, an A&O spokesperson said, adding: “The office will be open to anyone who wishes to work there on a voluntary basis but with people having access on alternate weeks to ensure that appropriate social distancing is maintained. Distancing and additional cleaning measures are in place in the office.”
Following a survey of its UK staff, which showed that 80% did not want to return to the office full-time, Eversheds Sutherland reopened in June on a voluntary basis with limited numbers of staff on site at any one time.
Meanwhile, Baker McKenzie is hoping to welcome 25%+ of its staff back into its London office from September. Bird & Bird has reopened its office “for people who are struggling to work productively from home” and Simmons & Simmons, which reopened its office in June for a “very limited return of our people” (also following an internal survey of UK staff), is encouraging WFH as much as possible.
One big firm, Slater and Gordon, which has not renewed the lease on its High Holborn office, WFH is being actively accelerated long term. This move extends well beyond the firm’s 200 London-based employees: once the pandemic ends, remote working for nearly 2,000 Slater & Gordon staff will become the norm rather than the exception.
But Slater and Gordon is not a City firm by most definitions: it specialises in personal injury, clinical and medical negligence, and employment law. By contrast, the banking, corporate and M&A heavyweights are anticipating that staff will return to their offices so that some normality will be restored – just as soon as it is safe and prudent to do so.
But will the undoubted success of WFH provoke a rethink? The extraordinary ease with which lawyers have managed the process will certainly leave many firms questioning their future office requirements. Add to that the huge shift in mentality which COVID has had on working patterns, employees saving on time and commuting costs and time, and the enormous potential savings in reducing the size of offices when renewing leases, and the argument for more WFH becomes compelling.
As sophisticated businesses, law firms will ultimately decide how to recalibrate the working patterns and location of their staff according to three key criteria: performance, productivity and profitability. However, the wider, long-term social implications of the pandemic also need to be factored into their thinking.
In most areas of change – structural, technological and social – law firms have historically proved themselves to be laggards rather than leaders. No surprise perhaps since the law is an inherently conservative profession. But if the level of demand for WFH remains as consistent post-pandemic, and there is no reason to think otherwise, they will have no choice but to adapt.
Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator. www.dominiccarman.com