City firms unlikely to return to ‘old normal’ according to EY poll

Simon Turner, EY

Although lockdown is easing, a return to normal working conditions may not happen in the short or long term in the UK financial services sector, according to a new EY survey of 200 senior managers across 162 firms. Almost two thirds expect the workplace to alter fundamentally while around 30% believe there will be moderate changes.

“Financial services are unlikely to return to the ‘old normal’, and new ways of working – incorporating a far greater degree of technology and flexible working – seem inevitable,” says Simon Turner, a financial services partner at EY said

Buy and sellside firms have been making plans for a return but it is unclear when employees will be back in full force. For example, JPMorgan has limited the number of employees in its UK and US offices at 50% for the foreseeable future, while Goldman Sachs is expected to follow its Asian operation by bringing 25% of staff back in London in the first instance.

Firms may also decide to keep workers at home because as respondents in the EY survey note the challenges have been overcome. Around 99% state that all or most of their employees are working “productively and effectively”.

Moreover, staggering travel times as well as social distancing may act as a deterrent. They have been kept in place to mitigate the risks of a second wave but according to estate agent Frank Knight’s calculations, complying with the UK’s two metre rule would require 35 additional square feet per employee. In total, this translates into a further 8.3m sq ft space in the Square Mile or an extra 4.9m sq ft in the Docklands area which is home to Canary Wharf.

While it is difficult to predict which configurations will be made, there is no doubt that technology will not only play an even greater role but as the EY survey notes, develop at a much faster pace than anticipated.

“The predicted shift away from so much office-based working and in-person contact will mean new ways of idea creation and knowledge sharing will need to be carefully thought-through and developed,” says Turner. “It will also require a rethink into how offices are currently used and strong leadership that instils a sense of trust and confidence so employees feel comfortable and supported as we look towards a post-lockdown world.”

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