As I get closer to retirement, I reflect on the time spent over the past 45 years in offices. This is especially relevant as the pandemic has led us to question the need for offices, when so much work can be done on-line from home or any other out-of- office environment. What is it that has kept us drawn to offices like moths to a flame? Is it fear of missing out (FOMO) or simply the implicit tyranny of power employers exert with warped logic: presence equals performance? Surely the office as a collection point is redundant in a digital age?
Side stepping the micro-dilemma I move swiftly on to the macro-dilemma, what does this bode for the central business district (CBD) of cities? The collection point for finance and business, the engine of growth for centuries based on the bringing together of buyers and sellers. Not only is this the beating heart of city it is where the wealthiest work, it is also a transport hub bringing in the ambitious wealth aspirants from the suburbs. Public transport policy is based on the idea that people will always need to get to get to a city centre speedily….but will they post pandemic?
The UK government is keen to get people back into offices, ignoring the fact that many employers and employees recognised that this is not essential for effective productivity. Why does a government want people to return to offices and risk spreading a deadly virus? Is it perhaps because the transport network needs passengers, or is perhaps because empty office blocks would pose an embarrassment? It can’t be to save the sandwich bars that serve the daytime city workers.
The mantra of getting back to work fails to address the societal shift begun almost thirty years ago with digital connectivity. Why does the government want kids to go back to school? It’s so parents can get back to work free from domestic distraction, but most parents work from home not offices. The reality is they want the kids out of the house during the day, not that they want to get on the 7.15 to Waterloo. They don’t need to and can save both commuting time and fares. The railway franchise owners must be as nervous as airline owners right now, given steep passenger decline.
The pandemic will pass and face masks will be redundant within a year, but the working habits we form now will endure. More people will work remotely and buy goods and services on line. High street retail will continue to suffer, but so too will city centres and transport providers. What will become of our city offices, the most expensive real estate on the board? If the value as a meeting place is redundant with people meeting on line, then its spatial significance becomes questionable.
The pandemic will leave its marks on the landscape; maybe empty office blocks will be requisitioned to house the homeless, immigrants or asylum seekers. Maybe the rail hubs will be transformed into skate-parks and quaint cycle lanes as our canals are currently used. One thing is for sure people will get back to work but the office as a focal point is unlikely to make a come-back. Physical presence becomes less relevant, we may even witness the first on-line coup.
At the time of writing only 40% of city workers have returned to central London, compared to 70% in Paris and Madrid, so perhaps this is a London phenomenon. It could be reflection of the degree to which the CBD is integrated within the social fabric of the city, and how much it is a lived-in city of local people compared with a city of international visitors. It could be an indicator of the nature of work in different societies, the relative importance of collective effort and physical presence. It does however signify the end of cities as trading centre where buying and selling was done in person.
The pandemic has completed the liberation of work first begun with the digital commerce over thirty years ago. In so doing it has led us to question the need to ‘go into the office’ every day, it has however created a new business model of remote working that leaves city centres looking for a new purpose.
Written by Garry Honey, SAMI Associate and founder of Chiron Risk
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.
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