Friday, 24 July 2020

Hollowed out

Unexpected traumatic events often lead to major changes in behaviour and policy, some of which are temporary, while others prove to be permanent. However, at the time it can be difficult to tell which is which. Remember after 9/11 how people were saying that nobody would be building skyscrapers any more? Have you looked around central Manchester recently? On the other hand, nineteen years on, there are still severe restrictions on what you can take on to aircraft in your hand luggage.

Nearly three months ago I came up with a list of likely long-term changes that the Covid lockdown would bring about. I think all my points remain valid but, as I was essentially considering the impact on the licensed trade and the retail sector, something that I didn’t mention was the move from office-based to home working. Yet many commentators are now saying this may represent one of the most significant shifts in society that emerge from it, which will have many implications for the role of city centres.

It’s been widely observed that the recovery from the depths of the lockdown has had a somewhat Polo mint-shaped character. Many suburbs and smaller towns are not far off normal levels of activity, whereas city centres remain deathly quiet. There are various factors behind this. They are places where most of the footfall comes from people travelling in from outside rather than those living nearby. Non-essential shops were not allowed to reopen until the middle of June, which is only six weeks ago, and pubs, cafés and restaurants, which most people would see as an essential part of a shopping trip, came three weeks later. At the same time, compulsory face masks were imposed on public transport, which people are much more likely to use to reach city centres, while they will travel more locally by car. And forcing people to wear masks in shops will make that day out shopping in the West End even less appealing. Plus the level of tourism, both international and domestic, has fallen off a cliff, and tourist attractions are only just reopening.

But undoubtedly the move from office to home has been by far the single biggest factor driving this. This has often been foretold, but has never really happened, but this time it really does seem to be different. It suits employers, as they can potentially save a lot on office rents, and it suits employees, as they are able to avoid the daily grind and cost of commuting. The wider implications for how workplaces function are really beyond the remit of this blog, and it does have to be said that successful home working may be reliant to a large extent on the social capital previously built up in offices, and employees are likely eventually to feel isolated and miss the social aspects of office life. But it is likely that many employers will adopt a system of only expecting employees to come into the office for one or two days a week rather than five, which obviously will have a huge impact in the amount of office space required, and the number of people present at any one time in city centres.

This will have profound implications for major policy areas such as land use planning and the expansion of public transport capacity. It will also affect housing demand, as there will be less need to actually live close to your place of work. And it will impact on a wide range of businesses operating in city centres that service the work-based economy – cafés, restaurants, sandwich shops, convenience stores, dry cleaners, hairdressers and all kinds of general retail outlets that workers use in their lunch breaks or on their way to and from the office. Some of this demand will be taken up by businesses closer to where people live – after all, everybody has to eat – but some is likely to disappear entirely. Although written from an American perspective, this is a very relevant article about how the relative attractions of city and small town are changing.

And one area that is likely to be particularly affected is pubs and bars. Nowadays, the centres of large towns and cities are one of the few locations where pubs really thrive. While lunchtime drinking is now much more frowned upon, there remains a strong demand for the after-work pint, with the streets outside central London pubs often being crowded with drinkers in the early evening. Very often, city workers go on directly to evening activities rather than going home first. And pub visits are often prompted by a desire to meet up with colleagues, and people from other workplaces, outside the office environment. If everyone is isolated at home, the attractions of wandering down the local at six o’clock will be much less. That is, if you even have a local, while in city centres there are pubs to suit every taste. So the death, or at least the severe diminution, of office culture is likely to have a seismic, and largely negative, effect on the pub landscape.

18 comments:

  1. It might be that after been isolated at home all day the attraction of wandering down to the local to meet other people and have a preprandial drink might be quite high.
    Certainly higher than the attraction of going to the pub with work colleagues who have been irritating you all day :-) And having to drive home from the office severely restricts the pleasure of after work drinking.

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    1. But a lot of city centre workers commute by public transport and so are more free to have a drink after work.

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  2. Curiously I've just handed in my notice after 18 weeks of home-working. Having 5 bits of IT kit (2 computer connections, 3 screens, telephone, mobile phone needed for ID and 2-factor authenticator thingamy) taking over your living room is no way to live. And as for the interaction with the office bully (if there is one), the office jester, and the top piece of office crumpet: well that's me. And it ain't pretty. Especially on the crumpet point.
    All the experts predict a second wave of this thing (SAGE unanimous), so better to get out now before cracking completely and calling a customer a nasty word which I think about doing a lot.

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    1. Apparently there's around a third of us feel the same way. I'm slowing going mad and I hate giving free offfice space to my employer and having junk (much of which I've paid for) COVERING MY DINING ROOM TABLE. They think they are doing us a favour by telling us we can't come back to our offices until at least September 1st. They might be doing those with two children, who tool around with excel spreadsheets all day, a favour, but it's no favour to me. Good luck Andrew.

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  3. I feel that much of the pressure towards the continuation of widespread home working is being driven by well paid journalists,senior managers and others who have the space to establish proper home working facilities,many people do not.Vast capital expenditure,both public and private has been spent in creating the infra structure for modern cities,this cannot be abandoned on a whim. There has been an over reaction towards the outbreak of coronavirus,largely created by a world wide fear of the unknown amplified by media hysteria,as more is known about the disease including methods of treatment and its control by vaccination this fear will subside and coronavirus will become another disease which humans adapt to and live with

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    1. Agreed John, there has definitely been an over- reaction regarding the whole Corona situation.

      Also, I wonder if all those banging the gong for homeworking would be prepared to take a pay cut to offset the money they are saving by not commuting.

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    2. Yes of course. Provided they got a concomitant raise from the money their employer saved by having to pay for less office space

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  4. The government seem to think all workers sit in front of computer screens and do little else. The press have swallowed this myth because this is how most journalists work.

    Meanwhile in the real world companies make stuff, deliver things and provide goods and services.

    This everyone can work from home nonsense is pure fantasy, pedalled by those too frightened to step outside their own front doors, whilst expecting others to run round after them.

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    1. It is a fantasy in your own head. No reasonable person nor any politician is suggesting that building workers or delivery drivers or service workers can work from home. The clue is in the phrase "work from home if you can"

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    2. dcbwhaley, there are plenty of piss-takers claiming they are able to work from home, whilst sitting on their arses doing sweet fa.

      Working from home is just another cop-out, dressed up as being "more productive."

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    3. What a strange take on two issues.
      There has been an overreaction to Covid-19? An overreaction might have saved tens of thousands of British lives.
      Where is anyone suggesting that manual, manufacturing, logistics, transport etc. workers should work from home? It's the millions of office-based workers who clog up roads and public transport at rush hour, often wasting hours a day, under discussion.

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    4. The issue of office workers isn't quite so clear-cut, as several people have pointed out. And I take it you never enjoy visiting city-centre pubs?

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  5. I think you're on the button there. Not just pubs. All those mini Tesco’s that exist to sell £3 sandwich meal deal, exist for the local offices. People going into a city once a week rather than everyday changes how they might wish to experience it. You might find more office socialising now meeting is occasional. People wanting a posh lunch rather than a routine one, on their one-day in. The desirability of living in cities is likely much altered. A small apartment in a dead closed city where the public garden space is off limits is very different to one in a vibrant buzzing centre for shops, theatres, bars & restaurants and well maintained public gardens.

    My own experience of home working began 10 years ago. A contract serviced entirely remotely is quite isolating. One with the balance of a couple of days in the office is ideal. You have time to get things done and time to build the professional relationships you need. Home working has been hampered by issues of trust and oversight and sometimes used as a none paid perk. The Rona has forced a more realistic assessment.

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  6. In response to John and Paul, as I suggested in the post I am somewhat sceptical about some of the exaggerated claims being made for a shift to home working. There are plenty of jobs that can be done to some extent from home, but far fewer that can be done with no loss of effectiveness over a long period of time. As I said, in many cases people can work reasonably effectively from home precisely because they have previously worked together in a team in an office.

    Having said that, plenty of commentators are saying that this time it really is different, and I can see what Cookie suggests as becoming much more commonplace, of people working most of the time at home and going in to the office for one or two days a week. There must be a lot of work being done in city-centre office towers that could just as easily be done at home.

    This is an interesting article I found about the downsides of home working.

    "But other types of work hinge on what might be called “collaborative efficiency” — the speed at which a group successfully solves a problem. And distance seems to drag collaborative efficiency down. Why? The short answer is that collaboration requires communication. And the communications technology offering the fastest, cheapest, and highest-bandwidth connection is — for the moment, anyway — still the office."

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    1. It is very much horses for courses. When I worked as an electronic engineer designing very specialised one offs, I would do the design work at home where there were fewer interruptions and a ready supply of coffee without breaking of work.
      But when it came to the build and test phase I would have to be in the lab supervising the technicians and using expensive test gear.

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  7. Basically, what you and Cookie say.

    Problem solving though is far easier face to face.

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  8. It's reported today that it's expected that 50% of London bankers will not be back at their desks by the end of the year, which doesn't look good for the service sector in the City.

    However, it occurs to me that if home working becomes the norm rather than something extended to existing employees as a concession, it will require employers to consider issues that may previously have been glossed over such as workplace health and safety assessments and potential discrimination against people from poorer backgrounds. And nobody's going to learn a complex job involving interaction with other people without first coming into an office.

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    1. A feature employees appreciate is lower commute costs (money & time).

      There is a transfer of cost people don't appreciate. The cost of running an office.

      These days home broadband is reliable, fast and unlimited so there's no need to upgrade that cost.
      Cost rise in winter when you notice the central heating is on all day.

      For those without the space to turn a room into an office, there are services hiring office space by the day. You hire a desk, connect to the wi-fi. Dunno if the tea bags are thrown in. Employees hiring their own desk and buying their own pens. Wait for that to kick back.

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