As a concierge at a luxury residential building in central London, it’s important for me to be at my place of work to do my job – which largely entails answering the door and receiving packages.
When the UK lockdown was announced in March, my employer sent me home to watch CCTV footage of an empty building from the comfort of my bedroom. I was happy to take a break from the centre of London, a place I’d come to detest for its chain restaurants, lack of decent pubs and endless crowds of people.
Unfortunately, my WFH bliss came to an abrupt end at the start of June. A freak accident involving a sprinkler caused a huge flood in the building where I work, and it was decided that someone (me) needed to be at the premises again. I wasn’t pleased about having to return, but despite how little I wanted to be there, seeing the ghost town that central London had become was oddly thrilling. Nothing seemed to be open except the supermarkets and a lone Pret a Manger, where the sandwich offerings had dwindled to a rather sad display. There was almost no traffic on the Strand.
I was also surprised by how many people came into the residential building – not the residents, who had by and large fled the country – but people carrying out work in the flats, including electricians, builders and decorators. While office staff who can work from home have been debating whether or not they’ll miss their daily commutes, another type of central London worker – those responsible for the maintenance, repair, renovation and management of the buildings used by office workers, tourists and shoppers – have followed the government’s recently abandoned directive to get “back to work” since the summer.
Ewa Roznowska works as a receptionist in The Adelphi, a huge art deco building just off the Strand that houses the Conde Nast, The Economist and Spotify offices. She was put on furlough in March, and came back to work at the beginning of September, just as the government began encouraging offices to reopen.
“[Coming back to work] was weird, I mean, as you can see, it’s empty,” she says, gesturing to the reception. “Before lockdown, I used to come in at 7.30 in the morning, and it was already busy. We had a queue in the reception from 8AM: guests, visitors, employees. That queue would last until 11.30AM.”
I’ve found coming in to work at an almost empty building a bit lonely and sometimes, it feels downright absurd. I expected others to feel similarly, but Roznowska says that she is happy to be back at work, even if it is much quieter. “Now, we just have a handful of visitors each day,” she says.
Scot Hardie, a sole trader who runs his own decorating business, tells me that he loved being in central London when it was empty. The majority of his work takes place in homes around here, and he resumed working in mid-May after nine weeks off. “It was brilliant,” he says, when I ask what it was like coming back. “It was eerily beautiful. There was no one else. I love it, because I’ve never seen London like that.”
Some people have found their jobs easier to do with less people here. Eddie Colston, a lift engineer working for Express Lift Co, says it’s been nice not having regular office staff around. He has been back at work since mid-July, covering buildings including Gray’s Inn and Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, as well as some smaller offices that house solicitors and accountancy firms.
“It’s relaxing,” he says. There haven’t been as many people trying to use the lifts while he works, and because a lot of the lifts now have a one-person only rule, there haven’t been as many breakdowns. “It’s not as hectic at the moment.”
Similarly, Ted*, a heating, ventilation and air conditioning engineer, has found his job easier to do with less people getting in the way. He says that he’d been off for about two or three weeks, before coming back to work in mid-April. “Normally, if I’m doing a survey [of a building], I have to either work around office workers or do it out of hours,” he explains. “If you’re surveying, sometimes you need to take ceiling tiles out, and you don’t want them falling on anyone.”
Hardie also enjoys the lack of crowds. “The problem with London is it’s gotten so overpopulated in the last ten, 15 years,” he says.
The desertification of central London over lockdown has made being here at least a little more pleasant for the people whose work necessitates being onsite. But, it’s a catch-22: while it’s been nice having less people in the way – whether on the commute, or in the buildings themselves – I’m aware that I, and all the people I talked to, rely on the spaces we’re working in being used regularly for our jobs to exist.
That seems unlikely to happen anytime soon, though. With COVID-19 infection rates rising rapidly throughout September, the government is again encouraging people to work from home if they can. It’s hard to say how central London will fare if there’s another lockdown, but this may be an opportunity to reimagine what purpose the capital’s centre should serve – and what will occupy the space when this is all over.