[message: the “stay at home” firms will see their bored and lonely good young staff jump ship to the hip, drunk, snorting, and cavorting hard-work hard-play offices everyone loves to complain about.]
The estimate from Transport for London is that 72% of workers are still not back at their office this week, which is why the coffee clubs, eateries, bars, and restaurants are still empty and central London feels like a ghost town.
Its the same all over the large cities in the UK: 50% of workers of all industries were still working remotely first week of August and public transport remains shunned like the plague.
Its slightly more “back to normal” in other European countries that ended lock downs sooner than the UK, with around 80% of all workers back to their previous place of work in France, Germany and Italy by August.
Still, nowhere has office life yet returned to the previous levels. More than half of office workers have indicated they would like to work more from home than before and many major employers have indicated they do not expect office life to return to pre-covid levels any time soon. This is fueling widespread speculation around the world of how work is going to change forever and that the nature of inner cities will adapt. You get plenty of visions of workers dialing into virtual offices from their forest homes whilst big cities become terrace-filled pedestrian zones dominated by tourists.
I think its too soon to expect the old office life to be gone forever. Its demise has been prophesised before and quite a few tech companies with the know-how have tried to do away with the office in previous years and failed. Whilst it is true that there has never been such a massive shock to office life as we’ve seen the last 6 months, and so the “new normal” might feel to many like it is sustainable, one can only understand whether one should really expect the “old office life” to be gone forever if we understand what the economic and social reasons were behind the old office life. Why did companies fork out hundreds of billions of dollars per year for decades to afford very expensive places in the middle of cities, forcing their employees into highly wasteful commutes? What made that expense and effort worthwhile in the first place?
There are strong economic forces that made regular office life an equilibrium, with firms that did not comply losing out. Firms that have a regular office life have three things going for them that “from home offices” lack: they offer the staff a venue where they have to socialise; they lead to a rat-race culture that encourages over-working; and they offer a place where clients/suppliers come to visit, come to see up close whom they are dealing with, come to be impressed, and come to be entertained.
So firms with a regular office will pinch the more ambitious, more fun-loving, more socialising workers and clients of firms without a regular office. These disadvantages do not hold if all offices are forced to work from home, which is why they were not so relevant the last 6 months and a different culture seemed sustainable, but they will re-emerge as soon as some offices go back to regular functioning. The “stay at home” firms will see their bored and lonely good young staff jump ship to the hip, drunk, snorting, and cavorting hard-work hard-play offices everyone loves to complain about. Ditto for their richest and most dynamic clients. To put it as simply as possible: you don’t make real friends on zoom. Continue reading