The future of work is making itself at home in New York, Hong Kong – and London, where this week it was announced that Covid restrictions will be lifted later this month. Also this week, New York is getting back to what it does best – throwing a parade for heroes. But among the three Working Voices regional hubs, it’s Hong Kong that is taking a lead in breathing new life into its financial district.
A parade this week in downtown Manhattan honours the essential workers who helped nurse New York back to health during the pandemic. It’s been quite a journey. New York has gone from being an epicentre of the virus to implementing an effective vaccination program that has brought welcome relief to one of the hardest-hit states in the country.
State-wide restrictions were lifted on June 15. By the start of July, around 50% of adults in NYC had received two vaccinations, in a population of 8.4 million people. Most businesses in the city, including hotels, restaurants, bars, and stores, are no longer required to enforce social distancing measures or capacity limits. However office buildings are still at less than 20% percent occupancy, according to data from Kastle Systems.
Looking for life in Midtown
West Village cafes are alive with regulars and tourists are returning to Soho, but business districts aren’t reopening at the same pace. According to a recent report from commercial realtor Cushman and Wakefield, Midtown office space leased in Q1 2021 was down 25% year-on-year. Previously, tech companies have been a major driver of Manhattan office leasing. Inevitably, they have been early adopters of the future of work. With Microsoft, Twitter, Square, Spotify, Shopify and Amazon all implementing extended work-from-home policies, Midtown’s smart restaurants face a long road to recovery.
Banks are talking less about work-from-home policies and more about hybrid strategies, with staff spending at least part of the working week in the office. Deutsche, Vanguard, HSBC, Lloyds and Citigroup are all signing up to hybrid working. Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs staff returned to their Battery Park HQ on June 21, an occasion marked by live musicians and platters of lobster. And workers at JPMorgan will return to their office later this month.
More broadly, about 71% of employers in Midtown and the Financial District plan to adopt a rotating office schedule, according to a survey by business booster group the Partnership for New York City. PNYC found that businesses expect 62% of their workers to return to the office in September for at least three days a week. While some parts of NYC are getting back to normal, for the moment at least the eerie quiet that haunts the Financial District looks set to continue a while longer.
London set to end Covid rules
In London, it’s a similarly mixed picture. This week, Boris Johnson set out plans to end Covid restrictions on July 19. A final decision will be made on July 12, but as things stand limits on social contact will come to an end, along with the instruction to work from home and the requirement to wear face masks. As of early July, 41% of London’s population of nine million people have had two jabs, but the plan to end restrictions will test whether the vaccine offers enough protection from the highly contagious Delta variant.
Similar to the fate of NYC’s Financial District, the City of London seemed like a ghost-town for much of lockdown. London has consistently lagged behind other major European cities in getting back to in-person work. Based on research carried out in April and May, the UK government’s Office for National Statistics found that 85% of people currently working from home want to use a hybrid approach in future.
A sense of awakening began on April 12 when venues across the Square Mile opened for the first time in months, including iconic sites such as the Royal Exchange, One New Change and Petticoat Lane. Nevertheless, there is likely to be some sense of permanent change. According to a survey of 1,400 UK financial services staff by consultancy Accenture, only 8% said they want to return full-time. One in four workers want to fully work from home after the pandemic, while the vast majority (69%) said that they would prefer to work just two days a week or less in the office.
Travelling in? Yes for drinks, no for work
The Bank of England has asked staff to come into the office from September, starting with a minimum of one day a week. Citigroup has said it expects staff to work from the office for three days a week. NatWest has said 55% of its staff would adopt a hybrid model of working.
Meanwhile, entertainment districts are picking up again. Numbers of shoppers, diners and drinkers were 70% of normal for April, according to figures from business group New West End Company. With Oxford Street, Marylebone, Brixton and Covent Garden drawing crowds to bars and restaurants, it’s been suggested that Londoners will travel to shop, eat and be merry – but not to work.
Back to the office in Hong Kong
Hong Kong too is re-opening, though perhaps in slightly different ways to New York and London. Hong Kong has recorded far fewer Covid cases than other developed cities, with non-residents being barred from entry since March 2020. Consequently there is more expectation for office staff to return to work than in New York and London.
Figures from Reuters (June 21) suggest that Morgan Stanley has more than 70% of its staff back at their desks, 60-70% at Credit Suisse and 75% at Citigroup, with JPMorgan expecting to reach 75% office occupancy in the coming weeks. While these levels outstrip New York and London, they don’t perhaps tell the whole story. According to research published in March by recruitment agency Robert Half, 80% of employees want to work remotely at least one day a week after the pandemic.
By April, the interest in hybrid working shown by employees was coming to be recognised by employers. Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index suggested 65% of Hong Kong business leaders were planning to redesign offices for hybrid work. This chimes with research by the Hong Kong Productivity Council which found that 62% of employers plan to implement hybrid working.
Bars and nightclubs opened on April 29 for people who have been vaccinated and who use a government app. And a long-delayed travel bubble with Singapore began on May 26, the first bilateral resumption of travel ties with another city. Both decisions were part of a co-ordinated effort to boost lacklustre vaccination rates. Only 26.8% of the city’s population of 7.5 million residents have been fully vaccinated, despite the fact that vaccination is free and open to all residents over 16.
Help with hybrid working
At Working Voices, our consultant trainers based in New York, London and Hong Kong help clients make the transition to hybrid working. Expert advice on managing the future is always advisable, particularly in uncertain times. It’s hard to see what’s round the corner, but agile, flexible hybrid strategies will remove some of the guesswork. And for any business, a little certainty in the afterglow of a pandemic is always a shot in the arm.