Working from where?

What is the future of offices and shops?
Oxford Street by Joe Stubbs courtesy of unsplash

One of the common themes that has emerged over these last six strange months is that the pandemic has accelerated certain trends, including online shopping, telemedicine and working from home.

There are many jobs which can’t be done from home, but there is a growing view that where it can happen, and with the right circumstances, this can be a good thing. There must be good digital connections, spaces and equipment, few diversions (childcare anyone?) and regular contact with others team members. 

Employers are starting to realise that they can cut down on office costs, reduce the difficulties and risks of social distancing and quarantine and enhance the geographical diversity of their workforce. Workers can see the advantages of not having long commutes, saving transport costs, possibly having more autonomy on how they work, and a potentially more pleasant environment. Clearly there could be a massive impact on the environment in reducing emissions. 

Managers are having to be more creative at communicating with workers who aren’t in the same shared space, ensuring key messages are shared and behaving differently. There are concerns that working from home could become divisive, hierarchical, reduce development opportunities, increase inequalities and reduce cohesion; it can be lonely, and there are fewer opportunities for informal chats. However, many successful organisations across the world have been doing this for some time, and we need to see what works well. 

We need to be honest about the unintended consequences of this shift. I admit to smirking a few weeks ago when I read the sublime Marina Hyde in The Guardian with her parody of the Prime Minister’s earlier instructions to us all: ”Leave home. Forget the NHS. Save Pret.” There has been a clear shift in the Government’s communications over the last few weeks about getting people back into the workplace. 

There are workplaces, such as multi floor office modern office blocks, where lifts are a major problem. People are nervous about air-conditioning systems. Because of the shift to open plan offices, hot-desking and the cost of office space and the subsequent squeezing in of desks everywhere, many organisations find they can accommodate only a quarter of their workforce if strict social distancing is enforced. Restrictions on public transport with limits on the numbers of passengers in buses and trains (just over half of all households in Tyne and Wear have access to a car) mean commuting is more problematic. So working from home is becoming a default solution for some workers. A number of organisations are adopting blended solutions, with workplace attendance on a limited basis. 

At the same time, a number of companies are looking at four-day weeks (a solution adopted by the Tyne and Wear Metro nearly twenty years ago). This would improve work-life balance and well-being, indirectly support carers and potentially stimulate other sectors such as hospitality and leisure.

Those of us in paid work have different expectations and working patterns to our parents, and we would expect further shifts for our children. I have managed staff remotely across the country, some staff on annualised hours, extended carers leave, fully-flexible working and a variety of combinations that worked for people and the organisation. Different working patterns demonstrably increase diversity and reduce barriers.

So what’s the problem? Remember that reference to Pret – I don’t want to see jobs go and the tsunami of unemployment that is about to hit us, but a number of these job losses will be the indirect result of more people working from home. Looking at London, York and Edinburgh, all have been badly hit by the loss of tourists and visitors, particularly to shops and cultural venues, but London has been particularly badly affected. 

The research provider Springboard noted a larger than usual decline in footfall at retail destinations across the UK last week. As schools return and holidays finish, the ‘back to normal’ effect hasn’t clicked in. There is significant concern about the impact on our urban economies. 

In the last few months many people have come to realise the importance of the local, indeed the hyper-local, and have become more aware of independent shops, retailers, local businesses and those organisations that have a genuine stake in the communities in which they are based.

Rocketing rents in city centres have meant the exclusion of local businesses. the growth of chains with little investment in citizens or place and the monotony of most urban offers with the same shops and restaurants everywhere. Local markets and high streets often offer the only relief. How will our city centres survive if there are fewer offices, businesses, shops, restaurants and cultural venues?

At a fascinating (digital) conference organised by Tortoise last week, I asked Sir David Adjaye, one of the world’s leading architects, about the future of how we could use space. He answered in terms of multiple villages, with our local neighbourhoods providing an ecosystem for everyone and being more diverse and inclusive. To move away from providing housing to thinking about living in homes. To recreate communities which would be multi-generational, using space differently but not excluding others. To focus more on our natural environment and value our parks and green spaces.

Surely this is really about being more connected: recognising the importance of where we live, what we eat and where our food comes from, the role of neighbours and communities, valuing the arts and culture and improving access for all to enjoy them. It is about taking time to improve our wellbeing and health, and ultimately the environment for the next generation. 

Many workers had previously fallen into the trap of uncomfortable long commutes, crazy house prices, and the loss of family time simply to keep their jobs. If it can be done differently and better, it should be.

There are growing voices highlighting the inequalities in the current situation. The concept of Community Wealth Building, championed in the UK by Neil McInroy of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) is well worth following. The Scottish Government and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority are looking at this seriously.

We have an opportunity to do things differently, but clearly the people and organisations with a direct interest in keeping property prices high are very worried. Much of the land and property in Newcastle city centre is owned by organisations and people with no interest in Newcastle. It is done for speculative and financial interests only. These powerful and vested interests will be lobbying the Government to get people back to work in the city centres.

The last few months have demonstrated to us what we already knew, that everything is connected. We have become disconnected from wider society, from responsibility to and for others. We don’t understand how our food is produced or where it comes from. We have no loyalty to our employer as they don’t care for us and provide good terms and conditions of employment; the rise in precarious employment is the perfect example of this behaviour. We have excluded vulnerable people from our thoughts until we were confronted with the realities of what was happening in our residential and nursing homes. We have forgotten the importance of relationships and trust. 

So my personal slogan would be this. Live happily. Save the public sector. Love your community.

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