In March 2020, UK office workers embarked on an unplanned and unprecedented experiment in home working. During 2020, home working rates were three times higher than before the pandemic; and four times higher for people employed in London. The experiment went pretty well, all things considered. The tech generally worked, even if the novelty of video meetings from cramped bedrooms quickly wore off, and productivity seems to have been sustained – at least in the short term.
A bigger and more complex experiment lies ahead. What will happen to ‘office jobs’ in the future, and what implications will this have for workers, for careers, for places – particularly places such as city centres?
This rather long article is an attempt to work through my thoughts on these questions, so is necessarily speculative (and at least in part inevitably wrong).
All in or all out?
Unlike the mandatory and largely uniform experiment of lockdown, the next experiment will see a variety of models, driven by shifting and varying patterns of government regulation, the needs and cultures of different industry sectors, and employer and worker preferences. With the exception of a few banks who still seem to be playing by Wall Street rules (“Lunch is for wimps” etc), it doesn’t look like many employers are ready to demand all staff are back in the office full time.
This would have felt like a regressive step even before the pandemic; home-working rates have been creeping up over the past ten years, encouraged by employers’ focus on ‘agility’, better technology for communication (and surveillance), and strengthened rights to work flexibly. Now that working habits and norms have caught up with the technology, reverting to the ‘nine to five’ presenteeism seems self-defeating as well as unfair – particularly for people looking after children (predominantly women) who would find themselves squeezed once again by childcare timetables.
At the other end of the spectrum, fully remote working coped during the crisis, but can this be sustained? Many workers felt that they were drawing down the reserves of social capital they had built with colleagues. Increases in task productivity are offset by more difficult team productivity. Online tools may help smooth collaboration and learning, particularly for younger ‘digital native’ workers, but in my last workplace, these were the very workers who wanted to be back in the office – to escape from parents and cramped flatshares, and to meet up with colleagues and peers.
Working away from the office may also make it harder for younger employees to learn the trick of the trade – how to behave in meetings, how to give and receive criticism, how to make a pitch, how to manage a difficult client – or for new employees to get to grips with all the unspoken aspects of corporate culture. All these can no doubt be taught formally, but for most of us they have been learned informally, even osmotically – by watching, listening and modelling.
Hybridities – beginning of a great adventure?
So, while most office workers are still at home, it is ‘hybrid working’ that is expected to dominate in the future, with people spending two or three days in the office and the rest working from home (or another remote workspace).
This could be entirely unstructured, allowing considerable discretion as to where and when employees work, and already is in many workplaces. But wider adoption could pose problems. First, most workers would choose to work from home on Mondays and Fridays, and in the office mid-week. If this approach was widely adopted it could lead to a sharp drop in demand for city centre services but would make it hard for firms to cut costs by reducing floorspace. Perhaps more seriously, it would risk reinstating a divide between those who were willing and able to be in the office more (principally men without caring responsibilities), and those who worked from home more (often women with caring responsibilities). The former have tended to do better in terms of career progression, even when the latter are more productive.
If these and other advantages are sustained, you could quite easily see a tipping point, as workers find it easier to collaborate, but also to compete, by being in the office. Hybrid working could remain permitted in theory, but become increasingly rare in practice,
Alternatively, management could decide who came in on which days. But this isn’t problem free either. Do you bring whole teams in together, or do you mix them up? Do shift patterns change so everybody gets some Mondays and Fridays at home? Can online tools work as well for informal as well as formal collaboration, when some people are in the office and others are at home? Is it really fair to force workers – particularly those for whom home working is difficult – to stay away?
But – to step back for a moment – why do we go into an office at all? We office worker types risk not only thinking everyone else is an office worker, but also that everybody’s office job is like our own. In fact, ‘office jobs’ contain multitudes – from conceptualising, designing and selling products, to talking to clients and collaborators, to analysing data, writing reports and coding, to monitoring service delivery, to managing staff, to maligning management and gossiping about Love Island. In varying proportions, even highly-skilled ‘knowledge economy’ jobs involve ‘relational’ work (essentially talking to other people) and more task-focused ‘programmable’ work.
There are some jobs dominated by ‘programmable’ work that can be carried out almost entirely autonomously, they are a minority. (And as a recent report argued such ‘work anywhere’ jobs can as easily move overseas as they can move out of UK city centres.) For the rest of us, adapting our workflows so that we can concentrate more ‘programmable’ work into days away from the office may require the type of flexibility that is hard to align with a structured approach to hybrid working.
In the short-term, therefore, I think we will see a period of experimentation. Different firms will try out different models of office, hybrid and remote working, testing out their impact on staff morale, retention and productivity. In an increasingly fluid labour market, you could see some employers targeting packages at younger workers, and some offering a deal that better suits people with children. It could be quite tumultuous.
But my hunch is that office and remote working models will begin to dominate in the medium term, because they have a coherence and support a common culture with which hybrid models struggle. Firms will reach tipping points where almost everyone is in all week, or almost nobody is; one of those will become the dominant model for particular firms or whole sectors, and decisions on leases and employment terms will reflect that. Neither model will be entirely pure: office-based jobs will probably allow more flexible working than before the pandemic, and remote-working employers will still bring staff together for structured collaboration sessions. But my guess is that working patterns will be 90:10 rather than 60:40.
Cities and centres – inertia counts
So, what does this all mean for our cities, and for London in particular? I suspect there are three scenarios: decline, dispersal and doubling down. Cities could see their centres decline in absolute and relative terms, losing jobs and population – particularly wealthier people, who can afford choice and are less tied to lower-paid service sector jobs. This would be disastrous in economic and environmental terms, as car-dependent sprawl spread through the countryside, and the problems of poverty and dereliction increased in cities. However, while there are some signs of ‘de-urbanisation’ in recent UK population figures, this feels the least likely option, not only because of the continuing appetite for some office working discussed above, but also because of the polutical risks involved in allowing this to happen.
A less dramatic variant would be dispersed patterns of working in and around core cities – perhaps realising the ‘fifteen-minute city’ vision that has caught the imagination of many city planners. I can see this taking hold, particularly for some sectors and some job types. More ‘relational’ jobs (consulting and advisory services, advertising, publishing) may stay in the city, benefitting from all the visible and invisible spillovers of agglomeration, while more ‘programmable’ jobs (coders, technicians, web designers) move out (or, as mentioned earlier, maybe even go offshore).
A recent OECD report suggested corporations would seek to relocate offices out of city centres. But how much would an employer gain by moving out of a city such as London (or Birmingham, or Manchester) with highly developed radial public transport systems and ecosystems of business services. Moving from London to Colchester, Crawley or Cranfield would inconvenience many more workers than it would help, at a time when businesses follow talent rather than vice versa. Inertia has an impact. So I suspect that most firms that retain office-based working will remain in city centres, and that the savings to be made from reducing footprints will be limited – though you can expect tenants to negotiate hard when leases come up.
There is still a longer-term question: will new start-ups see the value in city centre offices, or will they naturally adopt a more dispersed business model? Designing in dispersed working from the outset makes a lot more sense than trying to retrofit corporate structures, processes and cultures. But there’s a paradox here. The young people who work in such businesses are also the young people who are drawn to cities for the richness of professional and personal opportunity, for culture and recreation, and often to be with their peer group after university. If dispersed working is adopted by a new generation of firms, it may be dispersal within rather than dispersal from big cities.
The ‘doubling down’ scenario, where city centre working intensifies, seems the least likely at first glance. The co-incidence of a pandemic and technological change has created both a driver and an enabler for more dispersed working. But in the long-term, policy will make a difference and policy should be favouring urban growth (despite the electoral politics of ‘levelling up’).
We know that cities are more efficient than sprawl in terms of their carbon impact, and we know that government policy is refocusing new housing into cities, after a flirtation with more dispersed settlement. We can also expect business travel by air to decline, as carbon targets bite. All of these factors suggest that economic growth may concentrate in a few densely-mixed urban centres, well connected by lower carbon transport, rather than being spread through a network of offices within a country or a global region. The role of these cities and of offices within them will change – with extended commuting patterns, less generic retail, and offices that are platforms for collaboration and meeting rather than for routine administration – but they have successfully changed before.
The UK’s cities have borne the brunt of the health and economic harms arising from a pandemic. They will face the steepest road to recovery, and some may struggle to get back on their feet. But over time, I think our sociable natures will combine with the continuing strength of agglomeration, the inertia of infrastructure and the growing urgency of climate action, to enable cities to bounce back. It will be a choppy few years. Businesses need to be ready to experiment and adapt, without betting the house prematurely on any particular model. Governments need to respond with the policies and investments to make this recovery economically dynamic, socially just and environmentally sustainable.