Insider In Full: Return to EC3: One-third of London market waiting until 2021
A third of London (re)insurance market professionals are not considering a return to the office in EC3 until 2021, even though the majority of London offices are either already open or targeting re-opening in September...
A snap poll of Insurance Insider’s London-based readership last week found that a further third of respondents were planning a return to office-based work in September – when Lloyd’s also plans to reopen the underwriting room. An additional 14% are either already back in the office or plan to return before September.
For a minority, they will not have an option to return to the City until 2021. Some 7% of the 406 readers surveyed over a 24-hour period said their company was not planning to reopen the office until next year.
The findings come after this publication reported in June that many London firms were reassessing office requirements, including real estate, after successfully trading remotely during the pandemic.
Various plans such as rotational working have been considered as businesses juggle operational requirements with the need for social distancing.
The majority of respondents cited their safety concerns around commuting daily in a post-Covid-19 environment and the desire to achieve a better work-life balance going forward. A number of respondents also noted concerns around childcare provisions.
A number of readers said they were planning two or three days in the office a week in the “new normal”, and one respondent said they had been told they did not ever need to return to the office on a regular basis.
“The genie is out of the bottle insofar as flexible working is concerned. EC3 will not return to pre-Covid office working levels for years, if ever,” one respondent said.
Another answered: “In this day and age there is little sense in returning. We have operated as a market in lockdown and this has driven efficiencies for all.”
However, some respondents also noted that younger employees would miss out if the City did not return to office-based working.
“It is young employees and those who most need to learn who are suffering most. You take for granted just how much you learn through osmosis by being around senior people,” one said.
Others pointed to the social aspect of City working for younger employees, as well as the opportunity to work in more a more spacious office environment.
Lloyd’s underwriting room
The survey also asked readers whether they felt there was still value in a physical underwriting room at Lloyd’s, after more than four months of solely remote trading.
Almost three-quarters (73%) of respondents said they still felt there was benefit for a physical room for face-to-face negotiations but believed that more transactions should be conducted virtually.
This compared with 14% of respondents who believed the market should trade the way it did pre-lockdown, and 13% who believed the market should take the opportunity to go fully digital in trading.
Lloyd’s is to reduce the capacity of the underwriting room to 45% when it opens in September to adhere to social distancing guidelines – with clear screens at underwriting boxes and temperature-check thermal cameras introduced as part of the safety measures.
The Corporation is also working on a virtual underwriting room to supplement the physical room, however debate continues on whether Lloyd’s needs a physical room at all.
“Lloyd's is three decades behind the financial markets and needs to change,” said one respondent. “The underwriting room is an anachronism and is not necessary in today’s world (and hasn't been necessary for 20 years).”
However, many thought a balance between physical and virtual trading would be the best way forward.
“If we went back to relying on a physical market, that would be a step backwards and a huge waste of an opportunity,” one reader said.
Another suggested that the market should go fully virtual with a physical underwriting room space to facilitate digital trading.
“I think there is a fantastic opportunity to reinvent how the London market operates. Cost reduction, expenses reduced will allow us to compete more effectively. The market should be used for trading complex risks only, everything else should be virtual,” one participant also said.
A number of respondents extolled the benefits of face-to-face trading, particularly from those who identified themselves as brokers.
“Face-to-face negotiation is still quicker and more beneficial for clients,” one said. “It is very easy for an underwriter to say no on an email. For a broker it is also important to be in the market to see what other brokers are doing.”
One person said that as an industry with the capabilities and means to continue remote working practices, the (re)insurance market should step up and be a leader in doing so, ensuring that any potential further spread of the virus is mitigated.
“Yes, the critics will say that we are a face-to-face industry – to that I say we can't continue living with a fixed old school mindset and should open ourselves to adapting to what the future may hold,” they said.
Select survey responses: Returning to EC3
“Covid offers a partial solution to Lloyd's operating expenses problem. Most players will have seen their expenses greatly reduced since March.”
“Human interaction is the main issue with full remote working. The ideal would be to have a half way house where flexible working really takes off – but there is an opportunity that face to face relationships can still be built.”
“Whilst my employer hasn't yet put any pressure on people to return, I think the industry should also be messaging around caution, avoiding a second wave and voicing support for those who aren't yet comfortable with the idea of returning to EC3.”
“The downside to virtual trading is that markets can avoid a response or quickly decline a risk because it's easier to do so if it doesn't quite fit their appetite. Flexibility is somewhat removed in this environment.”
“The uniqueness of the London cluster is built on personal contact and proximity. Transacting must become more digital but networking will remain important.”
“Casual desk conversation, on the job training and career progression are three of our major issues with working virtually.”
“I don't think business needs to be traded face to face, but I do think there will be a purpose for people to be in the City (not necessarily Lloyd's) when required to either meet clients, their teams and to meet brokers face to face for social purposes. Going to Lloyd's every day or once a week doesn't make a lot of sense.”
“The physical Lloyd's room still has its value –you can transact business quicker in the room than remotely - response time is immediate versus having to wait for people to answer e-mails. You can see 10 brokers in an hour in the Room and conclude all your business versus 10 e-mail exchanges taking a great deal of time.”
“If Lloyd's goes back to its old ways of doing business in September it is a sign of a marketplace in an irretrievable tailspin. Talent will look elsewhere.”
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