Life after lockdown – will the City of London ever return to normality?
Last week, for first time since lockdown was announced five months ago, I ventured into London to meet up again with my Rein4ce colleagues. While it was a real joy to meet up person after spending an eternity chatting on Teams, Zoom and Skype calls, the whole experience was bizarre. I had heard the City was quiet, but I didn’t think it would be quite such a ghost town. Wandering past Lloyd’s, we practically had the streets to ourselves, and it felt like we had wandered onto the set of some post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie. The picture of myself, Sarah Hills and Caitlin Jennings masked up and socially distancing illustrates the point.
We took the decision to return to London last week to set up a series of client meetings because we fear there will be a second lockdown announced and it might not be until 2021 when we get the chance to catch up again. It was a real eye opener to find out just how deserted the City was and how few of our clients have returned to the office.
The London insurance market has always prided itself on the importance of face-to-face meetings and building trusted relationships over years. That stopped overnight in March when lockdown was announced. However, to many people’s surprise, the market did not collapse but transitioned with what seems like few serious problems to working from home (WFH).
The WFH experiment has been a success and it has, for many businesses, called into question whether they actually need an office in the City. Over a few glasses of wine in Leadenhall Market with a PR friend from another firm, we agreed that while a lot of the grunt work can be carried on easily via phone, email and video calls, the real value we bring to clients is the quality face-to-face time where we can download our brains and share the gossip and business intelligence which is the lifeblood of the market. Going forward, those meetings are likely to be few and far between, but when they do take place, they will be at an absolute premium.
One thing I found slightly disturbing was the rather gung-ho and macho attitude that some in the City are taking to social distancing. Most were very blasé about shaking hands and hugging and kissing, and were happy to chat to you up close, even as COVID-19 is still very much a clear and present danger to us all. Given that so many in the market are in the vulnerable over-50 category, this doesn’t strike me as particularly sensible risk management. One very senior market figure described some in EC3 as “macho, childish and ignorant” – adding he had seen the same views in Germany and the US.
Lloyd’s has confirmed it is still planning to open the underwriting room in September, which some believe to be premature and unwise. So, will we ever see the City returning to the bustling, vivacious and jolly mecca that so many of us love so much? That’s very hard to say. When Insurance Insider surveyed its London-based readers this month, it found that only one third plan to be back in the office in September, and that a third don’t plan to return to the City until 2021.
The City will have to adapt and change with the times. If offices are closed, or staff don’t yet feel comfortable about working in the office, what other ways will people find to have that buzz of working in the City? Walking past the Lamb Tavern in Leadenhall Market, I saw a broker sitting with a pint and his laptop open, carrying out a Zoom call. Will we see more of this?
After five months cooped up at home, it was a real joy to be back in London once again. Whether I will be back again this year remains to be seen.