For well over a quarter of a century we have been talking about how technology will revolutionise the world of work, liberating people from the rigid routines of commuting, the need to live near city centres, fixed office hours and excessive travelling. It hasn’t happened. We’ve automated plenty of things but have never really got round to addressing the way we work and the culture of presenteeism that underpins it.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken that world to its foundations but we are expending enormous amounts of energy trying to rebuild it. Why?
Of course, governments and business organisations will take the short-term view and panic at the sight of deserted city centres and empty trains but this is essentially a very short-sighted view.
People who can work from home have proved that it can be done and that productivity does not suffer. Indeed, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests productivity actually improves once people are not spending hours commuting, socialising after work or merely sitting at desks trying to look busy just to impress their boss.
We have embraced Zoom, Teams and other platforms in a way that has made people wonder why they used spend so much time travelling – often overseas – for face-to-face meetings that can easily be conducted virtually.
The work/life balance for many people has improved enormously and they are not going to let that benefit that go without a fight. One point that seems to have been too casually brushed aside in the panic to get people back to city centre offices as schools return is that with children out of the house many people will actually find working from home even easier. There is also the fear of travelling on potentially crowded trains, very understandable given the number of people who do not wear their masks and the propensity of trains to be one of the prime sources of infection in normal winters.
It’s not for everyone
Let’s not for one minute kid ourselves this change millions around the world have found one of the welcome side-effects of the pandemic is comfortable for everyone, or without its disadvantages. Many people do not live in places where it is easy to work from home. They may feel lonely and isolated or be at stages in their careers where the close mentoring and support available in a structured office environment is invaluable to them. We need to focus on solutions that involve hybrid working patterns, enabling people to make the choices to suit them. HR departments are going to have to develop a new suite of outreach skills to ensure that everyone is supported properly.
Governments and local authorities are in full panic mode about the damage to city centre businesses. So they should be. Not because people do not want to go back but because they do not have the right solutions. We are entering a phase of what economists call creative destruction and we need to embrace it, not fight it.
City centres are not going to return to what they were. That means businesses will fail, railways that relied on over-charging commuters will struggle and commercial property prices will slump. That is the destructive phase and governments need to step in to support those most hurt, the small businesses like the sandwich shops, bars and street food vendors.
The creative phase has massive potential.
People working from home will not want to sit in their houses all day, every day. They will want to meet people, collaborate and socialise with others. Some of that will be done back at their old offices – so they will need to be re-purposed to support collaborative working – but much of it will be done locally. This is one of the big opportunities we must seize: the opportunity to revitalise the struggling high streets of suburbia and provincial towns. Grants to help small businesses relocate from city centres would be a good start.
There is also a real opportunity to tackle social mobility and diversity. If people are not forced to move near city centres for work, often spending a huge proportion of their income on living costs, then businesses can recruit people from anywhere in the country. Where you live will no longer be a constraint on where you can work. There is a great opportunity in this for imaginative employers.
No-one pretends creative destruction is an easy force to manage but embracing it could bring great benefits and finally deliver that revolution in the way we work that has proved so elusive.