The death of offices, and the rise of small towns
Today I dropped my daughter off at the local train station. We live in a smallish town within commuting distance of Edinburgh. “Normally” the station car parks are chaos, with all spaces full, and people resorting to leaving their cars on the grass verge. This morning (at about 0830), it was empty … well not empty, but there were far, far fewer cars.
It really brought it home to me how things have changed. It’s been noted elsewhere, but the world of office work has changed fundamentally.
A recent survey by Morgan Stanley reported that, in August this year, only around 50% of people in five large European countries spend 5 days a week in the office. In the UK the number was only around 30%, with over 40% spending 5 days a week at home.
The jury is still out on how that will impact productivity, creativity and company culture (for example, Jack Dorsey, the boss at Twitter has said his employees can work at home “forever”, while Reed Hastings at Netflix thinks working from home is a “pure negative”. Most people tell you they are more productive at home, but that creative output, or “collaboration” is more difficult, and benefits from face to face meetings. There is some evidence of increased efficiency, but interestingly, less evidence that centrally positioned, densely populated spaces (i.e. offices) help with the generation of ideas.
But the rights and wrongs of it are somewhat academic (!) – the fact is, it’s happening.
Three things stopped it happening before, first was that until it was forced on us, nobody was quite sure it would work … well, it does! Second, we were worried about what our clients and our employees would think. Well, because it was compulsory, nobody cares about that anymore! Finally, there was some investment involved (e.g. laptops), but because of lockdown, we were simply forced to make it.
But will it last? Will people continue to want to work from home, even when we don’t need to?
At the Cashroom, the biggest downside is our staff miss the social interaction of the office. They miss the chat, and they miss their friends. The biggest challenge for us (and I would suggest all firms contemplating long term working from home, or a blend of home and office), is how do we address that?
But, looking longer term, IF working from home is a long-term trend, it will change the face of the country. Arguably the whole point of cities was to bring people together so they can work more closely, both in the sense of working more collaboratively and within physical proximity. It all started with the development of the steam engine, consolidating people into factories, and grew into the need to have people close to the paper that, until relatively recently, was the lifeblood of bureaucracy.
Without that driver, will people still want to live in cities, or commute into them for work? I doubt it, or at the very least, far fewer will.
Apparently, around 900,000 people commute into London every day. That’s 900,000 fewer who might buy a sandwich at lunchtime, a beer after work or nip out to the shops in their lunch hour. I suspect city centres will change dramatically.
But those people aren’t gone. They still need lunch, a beer, and will still shop. They just won’t do it in cities. Perhaps we’ll see the rise of smaller towns, “commuter towns” that until now only “thrived” at the weekend. Will entrepreneurs create new business to service the needs of the home worker, now freed from their commute and prepared to spend more time (and money) where they live? Will we see the resurgences of local culture and “society”, fuelled by home workers with more time and energy to participate more fully in their local communities? Will the search for the lost office social interaction, actually encourage people to speak to their neighbours….!
I have no idea! But what I do know is that when large scale change happens quickly, and when people and business need to adapt, there is opportunity.
If people are moving out of the city, there are houses to buy and sell, if businesses are setting up in commuter towns, there are leases to negotiate, and if people are spending more time with their neighbours …… there will be neighbourhood disputes to mediate…!
People will always need lawyers.
David Calder, Managing Director