Is This the Death of the Office?
What is the future for all those expensive, city centre locations which currently sit empty – do they still have a role to play? Helen Webster, MD at ASI Luxembourg SA, considers the role of the office in a post Covid world.
Since the first stock exchange grew out of a London coffee house, investment in stocks and shares has typically been highly focussed in certain key physical locations. A career in investment is simply described as working in “the City”. “Wall Street” would be widely understood as a reference to the US financial market. So, working in the asset management industry has been inextricably linked with these iconic prime office locations.
While working from home has become popular in other sectors, asset managers have often treated it with a degree of suspicion. Despite the long, overcrowded and expensive commutes, a high priority is placed on having direct access to decision makers at the companies we buy and sell, while dealers need access to their large screens of data and proprietary trading technology. And in companies where individual actions can move millions of pounds around, managers seem to take a real comfort in being able to keep a close eye on the people responsible.
But then Covid-19 arrived, and the world changed overnight. Asset management firms sent their staff home, and in most cases, they are still there with little prospect of change. The fact that our industry adapted so well to working from home is a huge positive. Very few jobs have been lost as businesses have adapted well to the “new normal”. Meetings are held virtually over a range of video platforms and it turns out that all the processes previously deemed inappropriate for remote working are functioning perfectly well. There may actually be in increase in productivity.
It turns out that all the processes previously deemed inappropriate for remote working are functioning perfectly well.
Of course, remote working has created winners and losers. I have been working for a business based in Luxembourg since May, and the local regulator is currently happy for me to do this without being physically present in the country, which cuts out a lot of travel time! I’m incredibly lucky to have a large house by the sea where I can walk my dog on the beach between Zoom meetings. After 25 years, I have a large established network who I can easily catch up with via social media, and plenty of contacts who are happy to schedule a socially distant coffee or lunch if I feel like travelling in to town for a change of scene.
But building new relationships is different. I would really like the chance to spend time socially with my new colleagues in Luxembourg, and to get to know them a bit better. That is much harder to do remotely, as video calls tend to be very outcome driven and stick to an agenda.
It’s particularly tough for some of our younger colleagues just starting out in their careers; we can provide remote induction programmes covering all the technical material, but how do they build up their networks with colleagues who they are not interacting with as part of their roles? And as a manager, it’s much harder for me to get that early warning that things may not be going so well with a particular project, or to step in with some coaching when I hear a difficult conversation unfolding at the next desk.
It’s also a different story for some colleagues who never expected their homes to double as their place of work. In some cases, space is severely limited and shared with other family members, making privacy difficulty and concentration impossible. For others, the social isolation of spending days at a time at home without any physical company has created significant challenges for mental health and wellbeing.
So what is the future for all those expensive, city centre locations which currently sit empty – do they still have a role to play?
Most firms accept that working practice will not go back to how it was. Staff are unlikely to re-embrace that expensive daily commute just to sit at a computer when they can deliver the same work from home. But there’s so much more to our working day than that! Collaboration, collective problem solving, building rapport, training and development all have aspects that are hard to achieve without getting people together in a room.
Companies that want to win the war for talent are already thinking hard about the best way to use the space they have, to give people the flexibility they are looking for while also meeting their business needs.
A blended approach, where colleagues come together for specific purposes seems likely. Where it used to be fashionable to run “offsite” meetings to take people away from their day to day activity, perhaps that will be the new “onsite”. This may mean a radical re-think about office configuration, with more flexible meeting spaces with whiteboards and decent coffee machines, less rows of work stations, ergonomic chairs and filing cabinets. Companies that want to win the war for talent in this highly competitive market are already thinking hard about the best way to use the space they have, to give people the flexibility they are looking for while also meeting their business needs.
We may never quite get to the beanbags and pool tables favoured by some tech start-ups, but life in the post-Covid City is almost certainly going to look and feel very different to what has gone before.
Managing Director, ASI Luxembourg SA
Helen Webster is the Interim Managing Director of ASI Luxembourg SA, following six months acting as one of its Conducting Officers. Previously Helen was Chief Executive of Aberdeen Life and was also responsible for Aberdeen’s UK, Irish and Cayman product ranges. Prior to joining Aberdeen, Helen worked at Aegon where she qualified as an actuary, before moving into product development and becoming a director of its Irish funds business. Outside work, Helen is a member of the Scottish FA’s Equality and Diversity Advisory Board.
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