This month, we launched our panel of brilliant London leaders to brainstorm how our city can bounce back stronger as lockdowns ease. Chaired by George Osborne and editor Emily Sheffield, our first session was on the future of the city office.
Much debate is being had about whether Working From Home, a trend that had already started, would become permanent after Covid. This has worried many Londoners; the capital needs workers back in the centre for its vital arts, entertainment and shopping scenes to survive.
But will people want to go back? Do their employers need, or want them to? Can blue collar workers get a slice of the WFH pie? These were some of the key issues we discussed.
Here’s what our panel concluded:
Although WFH has worked with astonishingly few hitches — investment bankers have conducted trillions of dollars of trades a day from their living rooms or bedrooms — employers are largely keen to get staff back in the office. In most industries, work has suffered from not having people together. As Annette King, chief executive of ad agency giant Publicis, put it: “The unplanned sparks, the combustion from people’s arguments when they’re in a room together, are what lead to the best ideas.” Matthew Moulding, founder of online retail company The Hut Group, and tech director Ken Olisa said the same goes for computing. Business culture — the ethos and spirit that spurs a team on — is also at risk in WFH, and Kevin Ellis, head of PwC, warned of the mental health issues it could cause.
Many people have enjoyed spending less time commuting and more time with family through WFH, and will be reluctant to let that go. That differs by age, seniority and family circumstances, so employers must cater for those needs carefully as we exit lockdown. Younger people seem keenest to return to the office. Simon Carter, chief executive of offices developer British Land, said two-thirds of under 35s want to come back. They have lost out by not being face-to-face with their teams, learning from senior staff and networking. Moulding said The Hut Group, where the average age is 27, has been investing heavily in new offices and staff love the buzz of working together. Many have struggled with working at home in cramped city apartments. Some in finance have been flatsharing with friends at rival firms, creating privacy and conflict of interest problems which are hard to get around. Older, manager- level staff are more mixed in their attitudes, but even they will mostly be back two-to-three days a week.
The WFH revolution should not just be the preserve of the middle class. Alex Baldock, head of retailer Dixons Carphone, said employers should try to offer WFH flexibility to blue collar workers as well as those in offices. Engineers fixing laptops might WFH, while video technology means shop staff can talk customers through products from home (“ShopLive”, as he calls it). Having seen how WFH can succeed for the past year, employers will be more willing to hire people with disabilities or carers who can’t work in offices.
This is the biggest factor affecting whether people will return to the office. Until they feel Covid-safe on the Tube, trains and buses, they won’t commute. Vaccine roll-out will be key but even then people will not accept pre-Covid levels of overcrowding. London Transport should deploy tech to help. Could they link people’s mobile phones with bus and train cameras so we can see how crowded they are and choose quieter times to travel? Employers must stagger days in the office and start times to smooth out travel congestion. TfL had already seen big drops in Friday and Monday commutes, but they don’t want to see all the three-day weekers all start on a Wednesday. The battle for funding between TfL and the Government must be resolved.
Recovery Board: Emily Sheffield, Ken Olisa and Annette King
Simply telling staff they can work flexibly isn’t enough. It is up to employers to give clear direction of what managers actually mean by that. If you want them in three days a week, tell them, rather than quietly resenting those who spend longer at home.
On a governmental level, comms must be far more coordinated and less confusing than it has so often been. “Eat Out to Help Out” but “don’t go the office or use public transport if possible” will just lead people to mistrust any advice on returning to the office.
Architects are hastily revisiting their plans for new workspaces. “Out” are the rows of desks and cramped meeting rooms, “in” are large, communal spaces for meetings and training. Some employers will close smaller buildings and consolidate into central HQs. Others are looking for flexible WeWork-type space.
We’ll never get people to put up with commuting if it’s not fun once they get to work. Offices must be surrounded by great food, shops and entertainment. Work life, social life and even love life are interlinked — around 15 per cent of us meet our partners at work.
As chairman of ITV Peter Bazalgette put it, office owners must become entertainers. Hire entertainment managers to put on the best after-work events.
Culture drives the fun agenda. Sadly, theatre, dance, galleries, live music are on their knees.
There is lots that can be done to help the get back on their feet.
End the pernicious new Congestion Charge times to get more people to shows in the evening.
Launch competitions, tax breaks and prizes to spur cultural activity. These could be funded by either public or private money.
As Charlotte Appleyard at the Royal Academy of Arts put it: “The Festival of Britain was a competition; the Renaissance was a tax break by the Vatican.”
We all know money is in short supply but with creative policies and fresh ideas, London will get its mojo back.
The Evening Standard is part of the debate in how to make that happen and we need your input to help frame our ideas so we can lobby for change. Next month our panel tackles how to build back greener from the Covid lockdown.
One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.