For many of us, our homes have become our workplaces over the past few months, and a full return to the office still appears a remote prospect.
Major tech companies say they are open to their staff working from home permanently. Employees are coming to realise remote working is not only possible but, in some cases, preferable. A shift to a new way of working might already be under way.
Such a shift could have profound implications on our home life, and by extension on the life of our towns and cities: almost a quarter of all office space in England and Wales is in central London alone.
To understand those implications, we brought together four experts on city life, all of whom were working from home.
Will city centres empty out?
Paul Cheshire, professor of economic geography, London School of Economics:
I do think we’ll go back to offices but not in the same way.
People are more productive when they are closer together with face-to-face contact. There’s 20 years of really good persuasive research demonstrating how important that is. There are lots of things you cannot do except with other people – people are innately social animals.
Les Back, professor of sociology, Goldsmiths:
I do think we are at a tipping point. There’s a reorientation, a recalibration of the relationship between place and time and social life that we’re on the cusp of. We may see profound changes. Some things may not come back.
Aude Bicquelet-Lock, deputy head of policy and research, Royal Town Planning Institute:
It’s true some companies have said that they could allow their workforce to work from home forever. Twitter said it. Facebook said it. The CEO of Barclays said that putting 7,000 people in the office might be a thing of the past.
The experience of going to the office in Aberystwyth isn’t the same as going to the office in London. The decline of office space will affect small, medium and large cities in different ways.
The hollowing-out of city life has been coming for a long time. It may be that what will happen is that some businesses won’t come back to the centre of the city and think it’s too risky – or there may be other economic drivers where people will just take the opportunity to ask: “Why are we investing so much of our capital in these large office spaces?”
I think there are possibly huge effects [of more working from home]. There’s the pressure on the domestic sphere. There’s the pressure on gendered relationships at home, on the blurring and overlaying of parenting and work and the pressures that would cause.
I think what we will see is that local centres may see more diversification – more dining, more social activities as people may want to meet each other. Also working from home may mean getting access to workplaces in local towns for some days. Growth is to be expected in these areas.
The contrary could apply to bigger cities, which of course raises the question of how the office space could be reused: there are several options, like turning offices into residential spaces, which hasn’t always been done with absolute success.
I also wonder whether we will need conference halls and other meeting spaces as we did in the past.
You will get more people working from home, which will mean there will be more demand for large houses. You have to have a workspace, which will push you out. You may need to move to commute maybe once a week, twice a week to your headquarters, wherever that is, for meetings. Therefore you’ll accept a longer commute for cheaper space. You’ll tend to move further away from the city centre.
On the other hand, there will be people who have to stay in the offices, stay in the concentration, the social interaction, who will become even more strongly attracted to the city centre. But you will probably also get localised desk-sharing, specialised areas where people can go if you’re a homeworker, where you can occasionally get better IT or better facilities or get away from your children. There will be an opening-up in smaller towns of hot-desking spaces.
We will need more space. What you would be doing is opening land close to stations with good access to city centres. You could build a million houses on green belt land within 45 minutes of central London because there’s so much green belt land.
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The fastest-growing places for people commuting to London are incredibly far away – Peterborough, York, Somerset. People are living miles out in order to get affordable land and more space. That will be accelerated. And it will be particularly accelerated unless we are willing to release land close to transport nodes that will give access to jobs.
What about transport and the environment?
Margaret Bell, professor of transport and the environment, University of Newcastle:
Our research has shown that in a study of commuting to Newcastle the 7% of trips over 50km were responsible for 60% of the carbon emissions. The further you travel, the more detrimental effect with emissions.
That’s one of the ironies of the green belt: forcing people to commute further.
My worry is people buying more cars and those who have cars will use them more. What we do need is incentives to use bicycles more and to get people to shift towards living closer to their work or workplaces, or arranging for people to go to work more locally.
We need a bottom-up approach to understand people’s needs and try and tailor the transport accordingly.
Housing, particularly in England, is very energy inefficient. There’s quite a big carbon footprint with more time spent in the home because home heating and home insulation is far, far worse than modern commercial premises are.
Some work we did in Leicester showed that if you work from home, on average you use 75% more energy than you save by not going into work. And that corresponds to a 75% increase in carbon dioxide – purely and simply because if you need heating and gas, electricity at home, that’s more than what you save by not going into work by car.
And so, coupled with the isolation effect, it’s sensible for local businesses to open up their hot-desking offices, or even have reciprocal arrangements with companies where consultants working more out of town could reciprocate hot-desking in offices.
What about the way we use cities?
We are predominantly talking about people who work in finance service sectors, white-collar jobs and white-collar workers. That isn’t the workforce of cities. What about hospital, school and other public sector jobs?
Also, cities are important because they’re places of encounter. Places of difference. That difference and the negotiations that happen across racial and cultural difference take on particular qualities in the centre of cities that are not the same in the outskirts and in the suburbs.
Everyone will have gone through the lockdown and will have gone through the changes and had new habits and will have strong views about what it is they want, what works for them and what doesn’t.
And I think one of the first things we will have to do as urban planners and policymakers is listen to what they want. But there will be financial constraints.
The other issue is people’s fear: how long will it take people to recover from the experience of being worried about being in crowds, being vulnerable. I think people will recover from that if there is a vaccine, if the virus subsides.
If that happens, offices will reassert themselves and all those things we liked doing in city centres will also reassert themselves. That may take quite a long time.