London’s Canary Wharf prepares for return of workers

Canary Wharf

Canary Wharf has drawn up detailed plans to bring bankers, accountants and lawyers back to the financial district as the coronavirus pandemic eases, from introducing one-way routes to daily deep cleaning, limiting lift capacity and removing soft furnishings.

The London estate, home to the European headquarters of Barclays, Citigroup and HSBC and many other businesses, is issuing new guidance to tenants this week after the government unveiled its back-to-work rules. Many companies are preparing to bring more staff back to its office towers after weeks working from home.

Signs will tell workers they should not pass on escalators, while heavy footfall routes around malls and offices are being separated into one-way flows to ensure social distancing, with doors left open to remove the need to touch any surfaces. Hand sanitiser stations will be placed outside office entrances.

Usually crammed skyscraper lifts are expected to be limited to four people.

Canary Wharf has remained open for office tenants through the coronavirus pandemic, with about 3,000 workers typically looking after the back end of operations in IT and other key infrastructure every day. Some banks have kept trading floors open for those who cannot work from home.

Covid-19 signage for Canary Wharf © Canary Wharf Group

The group had expected about a tenth of workers to come back in the next week or so from its total workforce of about 125,000, although it is now preparing for a more gradual return.

Howard Dawber, managing director of strategy, said: “We think we can get up to half the population of Canary Wharf back and still maintain social distancing.”

He added: “We were expecting about 10 per cent back this week — about 12,000 people — but have actually only seen a small increase after the government said that people should remain working from home.”

Canary Wharf has an advantage over other areas of London as it is a private estate that is centrally managed. It is working with tenants to encourage staggered working practices.

“During the lockdown, we have been living above the shop, and have worked closely with our customers and friends like a family,” said George Iacobescu, chairman of Canary Wharf.

“Together we have prepared 16m sq ft of offices and public spaces ready for tens of thousands of people to come back safely when they are ready and still to maintain social distancing,” Sir George said.

The company has calculated that with four people in each lift, its office tower at One Canada Square will be able to move 56 people every five minutes per lift bank, which equates to almost 2,700 an hour over the four lift banks.

“On this basis, we would be well within tolerances of lift capacity in the initial peak periods, based on the expected lower occupancy levels,” its guidelines said.

But the area will face a greater challenge in maintaining social distancing than other office clusters in London, according to research from Knight Frank.

Workers in Docklands have an average of 104 sq ft per person, less than the 126 sq ft average in the City and 160 sq ft in the West End. The estate agent estimates that 135 sq ft is required to maintain social distancing.

About 30 shops are now open in the Canary Wharf mall, out of about 300. Almost all are selling food, given government guidelines for non-essential retail to remain closed.

Additional bicycle racks are being installed across the estate, with a review of locations to determine if temporary cycle lanes can be installed.

In the guidance to tenants, Canary Wharf said “travelling on the Transport for London network will be an ongoing concern as social distancing measures force a reduction in capacity, especially during peak periods”. It is in talks with TfL about social distancing and queueing.

Canary Wharf is also starting to think about whether the pandemic has shifted intentions over office use. Mr Dawber said tenants could see the pandemic as a chance to reconfigure their space, either taking more in the short term to ensure social distancing, or bringing in different sorts of uses, with more people set to work from home in future.