There are many symbols of capitalism, but none so stark as the office. The office embodies a time of great leaps in efficiency, productivity and integration. The jungle energy of the office is a reminder of the huge capacity of human interaction in delivering results. However, even before the pandemic the tides were turning against the office. There is a hunger for greater leisure time, reduced commuting in polluted cities and a stronger embrace of digital opportunities. Then the pandemic erupted the norms of society, hollowing out office towers like swaying tombstones as workers flooded out of the cities. The questions remain, will this be permanent? How much of a cultural shift will business allow? What effects will this have on the structural composition of our economies? Ultimately, as we witness the metamorphosis of business culture, from direct interaction to remote working, how will we need to respond to avoid the structural plights seen in previous times of great disruption?
During the pandemic we have seen the transformation of working life, the huge expansion of government intervention and a growing demand to build back better. In truth, the pandemic has lifted the social barriers which normally prevent change. Before coronavirus, it was culturally unthinkable to move the majority of operations online, now it is a plausible alternative. Recent polling show that 74% of firms are planning to maintain increased homeworking for the near future . Equally, people seem to genuinely enjoy spending more time at home, albeit missing some human interaction with work colleagues. It is hard to see business returning to office-based work from the pre-pandemic world but equally it is unlikely business will run solely on virtual interaction. It is most likely that a hybrid system of virtual working hours and offices hours will occur. This will allow for the mundane tasks to be done in the comfort of your own home whilst the creative problem solving will be done inside the office. As a result, the role of the office will be more focused on supporting the creative and interactive tasks of business. Although offices will still play a role, they are likely to look different to how we imagine them now. However, the shift to remote working could cause inequality to increase, cause the collapse of business dependent on office trade and have a disproportional impact on women in the workplace.
In metropolises across the world there is a vast network of coffee shops, stools, restaurants, pubs and hotels which are all supporting huge supply chains, which ultimately provide employment. However, with the role of offices in decline, these businesses are suddenly left with a shortfall in demand. The effect this could have on cities is huge, leaving councils with budget blackholes and devastating breakdowns in the viability of businesses. Furthermore, this will lead to a spiral of decline where public services suffer from cuts, a drainage of skilled labour and growth in unemployment. All the while, individuals who are technologically literate, socially mobile and are able to work from home will have a huge competitive advantage. The individuals who suffer the most, will be those whose jobs cannot be done via Zoom and do not live in areas with sufficient digital infrastructure. Consequently, there will be a growing level of marginalised people in society and economically redundant individuals. Lastly, there is worrying signs that working from home will disproportionally effect working mothers. Throughout the pandemic, working mothers have had to do their job, care for her children and continue with household labour. Furthermore, it is reported that women (especially women of colour) were more likely to be laid off or furloughed . On balance, despite the potential negative impacts this cultural shift could cause, it will also allow for the creation of new jobs in rural areas, new efficiency gains for companies and allow for more time at home for families and individuals.
Overall, this is still a hot topic and is an interesting starting point for larger debates around the role of government, universal income and the future for metropolises across the world. There is still a lot of speculation around the costs and benefits of homeworking. Do you believe the offices will make a staggering comeback or do you think that homeworking is here to stay? Who will be best suited to take advantages of homeworking and who will carry the costs? Do you think the role of government will have to change to support this transition?