Like many people during lockdown, I kept very much to my local area and did not do my usual wanderings around the Island. However with Canary Wharf in easy walking distance, I decided to have a wander around the large estate.
On the surface, little seems to have changed with gardeners tending the green areas and contractors working on the many building projects but what you begin to realise is that there are very few office workers and most of the people wandering about are wearing masks. The once bustling financial district which used to welcome over 120,000 workers each day is much emptier with estimates of less than 10,000 workers returning to their offices.
One noticeable change has been the often packed tube station is much quieter with the crowds now slowed to a trickle.
Many of the large banks and businesses seem in no hurry to get the thousands of workers back into Canary Wharf to their offices. To encourage workers to return, The Canary Wharf group has installed signs and created a one-way system for pedestrians, it is also regularly cleaning public areas and will manage the towers’ lifts to ensure social distancing. However, despite these measures, employers and employees show little urgency to return to their offices after several months of working from home.
One of the major problems is that the vast majority of people commute to the area using public transport, and many workers remain uneasy about being stuck in a crowded tube.
Walking around Canary Wharf, another realisation is that the many small businesses which rely on office workers are struggling with few or no customers. In pre-pandemic times there would be hundreds of people per day queuing for coffee or fast food, now it is just one or two.
Is this the end of Canary Wharf as we used to know it ?
One worry for the small businesses is that the thousands of office workers will never return in large numbers because of changing working patterns. Just a few months ago, Canary Wharf was looking forward to extending the estate with many new buildings and Crossrail poised to deal with the proposed increase in workers. Those plans now seem more than optimistic and the next few months will show if there is a market for office space or not.
The initial signs are not good, Morgan Stanley is said to be reviewing their London requirements, Credit Suisse is giving up some office space and Barclays is considering its headquarters altogether.
However, there is some people that suggest that even if the huge landmark office buildings are slowly being emptied, Canary Wharf could become the world’s biggest technology hub.
Over the years writing for Isle of Dogs Life, it has always surprised me how often history repeats itself. The docks were seen as an integral part of London but their time came and went. No area is safe from world events and Canary Wharf is probably facing its biggest challenge since it was raised from the ashes of the West India Docks.