Published Monday 28th September 2020

Just last week I took a straw poll across several of our professional services clients and contacts. For those hoping for anything looking remotely like an emerging return to normality the results make for depressing reading; two large London law firms have little more than a handful of staff back at the office despite both employing hundreds, amongst our patent attorney, actuarial and wealth management clients offices in London remain firmly closed.

In the provinces the picture is a little brighter, but a Worcestershire-based Partner in an international practice informed me that even the most traditional experienced partners in her firm’s office had adapted well to working from second homes in Dorset and Cornwall despite heavy initial resistance to doing so.

The ‘Forced Change’ inflicted on professional services since the original lock down began earlier this year, has advanced the march of emerging workplace trends by a decade. There will simply be no return to how it was, no matter how hard prime office landlords will that to be the case.

Take the case of Schroders at the RIBA award-winning 1 London Wall, with 11 garden terraces cascading down their tiered building – each with its own manicured lawn, bluebells, cowslips and ox-eye daises. In August Schroders took the seismic decision to allow their 5,000 staff to work from home forever.

Pity the respected £2.3bn property fund managers who commented “Taking the longer term view, we doubt whether the current experiment with remote working will lead to a step-change in office demand after the virus” and that London could be “one of the best performing markets in 2021”. That £2.3bn fund? Yes, you guessed it – Schroders Real Estate Fund.

If not a contradiction, then definitely a talking point.

Magic Circle law firm Linklaters has empowered its 5,000 global employees to decide where they work from; PWC has stated that most of its 22,000 UK employees will never return to the office full time; Avison Young, the property services firm hosted an online seminar with staff detailing office safety measures and social distancing – after the seminar it emerged that the proportion of staff who did not want to return to the office had increased by 10%.

The pandemic has taught firms, partners and employees that they don’t have to deal with the ridiculously early starts, the two-hour crowded commute, the second highest office rents in the world (after Hong Kong) and all the other stresses of London life.

The density, clustering effects and economies of agglomeration made cities valuable places for businesses to invest. Covid-19 has, in some cases, reduced that value to less than its cost. And firms’ exodus from cities exposes their real problem – the conditions which once made cities great may no longer be necessary.

About the Author: Jason Adderley, joined ERA after a 15-year career in the commercial property development and investment industry, and works with a diverse client base comprising solicitors, actuaries, chambers, patent attorneys, accountants, surveyors, consulting engineers and recruitment consultants.

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