Over the last few days there has been a wealth of press coverage, politicians talking, discussion online about people returning to the workplace. Sometimes the talk is of returning to work.
Some of have never stopping working, we have been working from home!
The headlines in the papers and on the web seemed to indicate that people weren’t working and that they should return to work. This is quite insulting to all those people who have been working, and working during a crisis as well as supporting potentially children in their schooling, as well as avoiding meeting friends and family. The main crunch of the issue appears to be the impact of people not commuting to the workplace and the impact this is having on the economy of the city centre and the businesses that are there.
At the end of last week, there was this article on the BBC News: Warnings of ‘ghost towns’ if staff do not return to the office.
Dame Carolyn said the UK’s offices were “vital drivers” of the economy, supporting thousands of local firms, from dry cleaners to sandwich bars. “The costs of office closure are becoming clearer by the day. Some of our busiest city centres resemble ghost towns, missing the usual bustle of passing trade.
This tweet echoed my thoughts on that article.
What would you rather have? A better work/life balance or the knowledge you're keeping Pret open? Unbelievable.
BBC News – Warnings of 'ghost towns' if staff do not return to the office https://t.co/G2ei99Rrnc
— Rich Stanley (@executiverocker) August 27, 2020
The issue is that the genie is out of the bottle now, both staff and businesses are seeing the potential benefits (and the pitfalls) of working from home. This shift in working patterns will not go away. This doesn’t mean that we’re all working from home permanently as we were under lockdown, but it does mean that we’re very likely not to go back to the way things were.
As a result the rest of the business world and the economy will need to reflect that shift and adjust.
What sparked my post more than anything else was this Medium post about remote work in the US, Remote Work Is Killing the Hidden Trillion-Dollar Office Economy.
Businesses dependent on workers commuting to offices were finding revenues were falling and falling fast. Some were those provides food and drink.
Starbucks attributed the loss of some $2 billion year on year to deserted urban office corridors
Then there was business travel.
…in the air, white-collar workers previously kept a parallel economy buzzing, with business travel accounting for 60% to 70% of all airline traffic. While leisure getaways have also been obliterated, it turns out the bigger punch is the Zoomification of business meetings, a cancellation of business travel that analysts expect to persist for up to two or three years.
Then there are the changes in real estate, with some companies ending leases early, not renewing, or even cancelling new offices.
Pinterest turned heads when it announced it would pay a $89.5 million contract penalty to cancel its lease on a flashy new 490,000-square-foot office building planned in San Francisco.
In the UK we know that train companies are now looking to see how they can reflect the shift from five times a week commuting to the office, to a model where people will only travel two or three times a week to the office.
Yes there is a real issue with the loss of footfall in places like London and Manchester and this needs to be thought about and dealt with. The shift in the working population away from the heart of the cities will result in major changes across the economy, as well as direct impact on the city centre economy. However I do fell that this is also a real opportunity as well to reduce the dependency on commuting and mass daily migration from the suburbs to city centres.
Last week the BBC reported that there was no plan for a return to the office for millions of staff.
Fifty of the biggest UK employers questioned by BBC have said they have no plans to return all staff to the office full-time in the near future.
Within my own organisation, decisions are still being made about the future of the offices we have. However it is clear that we won’t be going back to what we had before. Even being a pretty much blended workplace anyhow, the covid-19 pandemic forced a non-office culture on everyone. Of course everyone won’t be able to work from home, and not everyone will want to work from home. Giving people a choice is important. What I am hoping to see in the future is that office space encourages and enables different ways of working and that rows of desk working staff is not the norm for the future. I discussed this more in an earlier post on changes to my office working.
Personally I think that if we can use this opportunity to move the work landscape from one where large portions of the population scramble to get to a single location via train or driving to one where people work locally (not necessarily from home) then this could have a really positive impact on local economies, as well as flattening the skewed markets that the commute to the office working culture can have on house prices, transport, pollution and so on.
This view was echoed in the FT opinion piece (paywall) by Sarah O’Connor, Goodbye to the ‘Pret economy’ and good luck to whatever replaces it.
The article talks about the rise and fall of Pret.
The rise of Pret has mirrored the rise of London and, until recently, they both seemed unstoppable Yet last week, Pret said it would cut 2,890 jobs, almost one-third of its workforce, after the pandemic wiped out “almost a decade of growth” for the company.
As with many other people, when the call came back to head back to the office, thought, let’s be honest do we need to go back to the office, travelling on trains and buses as well as going out for lunch? The coronavirus is still there, infection rates are rising in some parts of the country and there is still no vaccine and no cure.
My working patterns were not regular or consistent before covid-19, now as we continue to emerge from lockdown I am certainly not expecting major changes to what I have been doing over the last five months, just the odd visit to the offices and not much if any other travel. This will mean less coffee and probably not going out for lunch at all, ah well.
Isn’t it time to start thinking differently about work and the nature of work?
Well some of us have been talking about this for a while now.
Back in 2016, Lawrie Phipps published a really interesting blog post on the nature of work, Something, not somewhere, and increasingly somewhen
The web affords us new ways of working, new opportunities to connect. It furthermore allows for a richer experience of work and life, rather than forcing us to segregate our time from ourselves via physical location, allowing us to choose when and where we are most productive, and how to conserve our face to face energy for those times that truly require it.
The coronavirus lockdown forced many people to work from home, and though many found it challenging, some thrived. We became better at using tools such as Teams and Zoom, and many found they were more productive, though some didn’t.
Of course working from home is not for everyone and this is where thinking differently about work and the nature of work needs to consider not just working from home, but also working from an office. The office doesn’t have to be the office, it could be an office.
I do hope that we could start not just working from home, but working locally as well, maybe in physical hubs, or other co-location workplaces. That way you can still work from “home” by working locally, but you also get the other benefits of working in a space with others Of course this isn’t new either. Many companies already did allow staff to use local flexible meeting spaces for meetings and working. There are quite a few companies that can provide offices and desks to hire, though these are suffering just as much in the lockdown as well, but when that’s less restrictive there are possibilities.
Of course the economic challenge in all this is how these shifts impact on workers, both those who are now remote working, and those who were previously employed in all those support businesses. The economics shifts we’ve had in the past, in the main de-industrialisation, were often managed badly. As industrial and manufacturing jobs disappeared and new service and office jobs grew, this wasn’t evenly spread across the country, and the end result was areas of high unemployment, slow economic growth and poor social mobility. At the same time saw excessive wages and costs, and where demand for workers could not be met, we saw large rises in commuting, as well as huge increases in house prices, which then resulted in even more commuting.
As we have this paradigm shift in working patterns, we need to think about how we manage that shift to reduce the impact on workers (as well as businesses) that use to depend on other works commuting to the office, drinking coffee and having lunch.