COVID-19Home office

We’re not going back – and you can’t make us!

Now they’ve had a taste of freedom, it’s no wonder office workers don’t want to return. And many employers feel the same way, says Laura Marcus.

Working miles away from home has never made sense. We’ve come to accept it because it’s been this way for so long…

Just before Christmas 2018, I travelled along the Docklands Light Railway from Bank to London City Airport in the East End. It was dusk and lights in the gleaming glass and steel towers outside glittered like thousands of Christmas trees. What, I idly wondered, would become of these tall towers if we had a hard Brexit. Most of these skyscrapers house banks, insurance companies and other financial services. Would they leave London for Amsterdam, Dublin, Frankfurt and Zurich?

Take a good long look, I thought. This scene may soon change. These buildings could become empty, without use.

However, it wasn’t Brexit that caused these buildings to fall silent. And it’s not just the pandemic either. It’s the realisation by millions of office workers and crucially their employers too that it really isn’t necessary to have all these people warehoused into a few square miles for work to be carried out effectively. That’s why this week we’ve seen a trickle not a torrent of workers returning to their offices. Thanks to the pandemic forcing people who can to work from home, employers have discovered what any person who’s worked from home most of their lives could have told them – large-scale offices and five-day commutes are not necessary for productivity.

For years commuters have put up with cramped, expensive travel conditions, having to live further and further away from their place of work as they can’t afford to live near their office. Commutes from Doncaster or Cardiff into London every day, even from Newcastle, are not that unusual. There’s also the weekly commute where you live in digs Monday to Thursday night and only live at home at the weekends. I’ve done that and it’s very dislocating. You wake up some mornings not sure if you’re at home or in a temporary bed.

So, is it any wonder having tasted the freedom of working from home many office workers don’t want to go back to the commuting grind?

Journalist Tim Harrison, who founded and edits the community magazine The Good Life – the best thing to come out of Surbiton since the A3 – is very well placed to spot the rising rebellion from office workers. “I know people keep saying ‘Life will never be the same again’ after Covid but they’re right. Round here there seems to be no appetite for returning to work on jammed trains and packed buses. Estate agents are swamped with demand for homes with part of a garden that can be converted into a mini outside office.”

I used to live in Surbiton, this heartland of commuter country in Surrey, just outside London. And I returned there briefly last year to stay with friends when I got a short-term contract which required me to be in the city centre. This seemed ideal as I could commute into town. However, I was shocked at how much more crowded trains had become. Sometimes you couldn’t even get on a train at Surbiton station. They would arrive already jammed. I had to leave earlier and earlier to be sure of getting on a train at all. And the cost of commuting is horrendously high. No wonder commuters are rebelling and saying enough! No more.

It isn’t just London people commute to. It’s a pattern in cities all over the country. Some go by train, some by bus, some a combination of the two and of course many drive, sitting in long traffic jams fuming about the time this robs from their lives.

Working miles away from home has never made sense. We’ve come to accept it because it’s been this way for so long yet it’s only recently we worked so far from home. Even at the start of the Industrial Revolution many people still worked from home. The commute way of working developed thanks to high house prices sending people further and further away from their place of work. The average commuter who spends an hour going into work and an hour back is spending 40 hours a month commuting – that’s equivalent to a week for every month worked. And for many commuters it’s a lot more than two hours a day. Looked at from a purely logical point of view it makes no sense.

Of course many people like working in offices. They like the company, the gossip, the networking. You can make friends at work even find your lifelong partner. And for young people starting their working lives in their bedrooms it obviously isn’t ideal. There’s also the “third space” that commuting offers; neither work nor home but a chance to be alone with your thoughts, your podcasts, your kindle and your music among thousands of others. That has its attractions. But the change in city life is probably unstoppable despite the pros as well as the cons of commuting.

Without offices and people buying sandwiches, dropping into pubs on the way home, going to restaurants, theatre, clubs, concerts and cinema, the city will lose its purpose. But it will find another. Cities will evolve. And so will the towns and suburbs where workers are now. Pret may close its city centre shops but mobile sandwich vans will replace them. Services will go where the people are.

When mines closed, the mining villages lost their purpose. Same happened with steelworks, shipbuilding, potteries and mills. People were told to adapt. Be flexible. Get on their bikes and look for work. It was progress. It was the market and you can’t buck the market. The people and the places changed because they had no choice.

What’s the difference when office blocks become as redundant as mines and mills? I live in a former mill town. Most of the mills have been converted into housing. Maybe the same can happen with all those gleaming glass towers? Solve the problem of empty office space and atrocious homelessness in one go. Now that’s progress.

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Laura Marcus

Laura Marcus is a freelance journalist and broadcaster.

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