Summing up where the office now stands in the scheme of things

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A painting in the style of Edward Hopper of a lone man waiting to board a commuter train to get to the office The argument about what it takes to encourage people to come into the office more often seems to have boiled down to an equation. It’s now common to hear somebody argue that the office has to be worth the commute it takes to get to it. So, if you want people to spend more time in the building, you need to do the maths. O must be greater than or equal to C

Now of course there’s a lot of detail hidden within those two variables. But the now near three-year exploration of them doesn’t always reflect that. For a start, the commute in the UK is often taken to mean a commute from a suburb or satellite town by public transport into Waterloo, London Bridge, Canary Wharf or whatever. Possibly New Street or Piccadilly. And the office is often understood to mean a bland open plan space with managers who only want you there so they can watch you.

That may be true for many people but it’s not the case for the majority. O and C have different values for different people. And that shows up in the way they work and their daily routines.

In London for example, rush hour arrivals into Waterloo – the UK’s busiest station – remain at about half of their pre-covid levels. The number of passengers using the tube remains at 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to Transport for London.

Meanwhile across the rest of the UK rail passenger numbers average about three quarters of what they were. And for those people in smaller towns who don’t get into work by rail, but may have a short journey by car or bus and quite possibly one they undertake on foot or by bike, the equation can be very different indeed.

This doesn’t mean that flexible and remote working patterns haven’t affected people who work in those places. Just that the sums are different. Office and commute are variables.

This is reflected across the World. A recent study from the Economic Innovation Group based on US census data shows that remote work has grown unevenly across the United States. Overall, 25 percent of the ‘commuting zones’ identified in the report have remote work rates below 7.2 percent, while the top 15 commuting zones average 28.0 percent. The highest rate of remote work is in Washington, where 33.6 percent of the population worked remotely in 2021.


Not all about place

The variables of office and commute are not just influenced by geography. According to a report from Nick Bloom and his team at Stanford University (incidentally perhaps the most interesting researchers on the subject in the world just now) the people most likely to gain from remote work are those who are already doing well. These include high income men in their 30s and 40s who not coincidentally are also those most likely to work for profitable companies who are inevitably those most likely to be introducing remote work policies.

“Ground zero for who stands to benefit from WFH in the near future is something like a 45-year-old software engineer who used to work in central Manhattan but now they can do the same work, for the same salary, from their living room in the suburbs,” Bloom is quoted as telling The Atlantic.

The potential for remote work is concentrated among highly skilled, highly educated workers in a handful of industries, occupations and geographies

In the UK, according to ONS data, before the pandemic, only 6 percent of female workers and 4 percent of men always worked from home. After the first national lockdown, those figures jumped to a third of all those employed. Even then, remote work was unmistakeably class-based. Around a half of workers in managerial and professional jobs reported that they worked from home all of the time in April 2020 with another quarter saying they did some of the time.

According to a 2021 TUC study, people in higher-paid occupations were much more likely to have worked from home during the pandemic (60 percent) than those in working-class jobs (23 percent).

A report from the World Economic Forum, emphasises this disparity. Based on an analysis of 800 occupations in nine countries it found that the majority of people had not worked from home during the global lockdowns, including in countries like the UK.

The report concluded that: “The potential for remote work is concentrated among highly skilled, highly educated workers in a handful of industries, occupations and geographies… We anticipate more remote work going forward, but primarily in hybrid models, with employees splitting work time between home and office, for occupations with high remote-work potential.

“Remote work also risks accentuating inequalities, delivering expanded benefits like greater flexibility and lower costs to the minority of workers who can work from home, while increasing the precariousness of the jobs that cannot be done remotely. For some women, remote work has the potential to exacerbate the regressive effects of COVID-19, which we have explored in prior research. The influence of COVID-19 on other big trends affecting the workforce, which we are currently studying, may further exacerbate inequity, making it imperative for policy-makers and companies to take steps to mitigate the consequences and help workers navigate the emerging new world of work.”


A new feudalism

The author Joel Kotkin explores such disparities across Europe and North America in his 2020 book The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to The Middle Class. He argues that we risk turning back the gains made in the 20th Century in which wealth, influence and authority are concentrated in the hands of a relatively small proportion of the population. But this time the serfs will also be found in the middle class.

Most hope may lie in the State, if it can grasp the problem

He describes a world of work, common to the agricultural and industrial era in which people work from home or very nearby and in which most people are underemployed except at certain times of the year. The book suggests that the growth in automation and access to a global supply of cheap labour could stratify incomes and halt social mobility.

What does seem clear is that too much of the debate about work has been about the effects on a relative minority of people. Even these people may not be sheltered from the changes the pandemic has accelerated, especially as they find themselves in transactional jobs they used to think were relational.

For many others, the whole conversation can be irrelevant. And for others counter-productive. Young people risk having no way into mentorship and the culture of the organisation. There are signs that the progress made by women towards equality may have taken a step back.

Joel Kotkin’s book may be needlessly pessimistic in describing a return to a feudal state, but the dangers are clear. History not only teaches us about these dangers but also the solutions to them. Most hope may lie in the State, if it can grasp the problem.

The 19th Century sociologist Emile Durkheim saw the state as a potentially liberating force. At the time he was writing, the state was starting to introduce laws to protect people from oppressive landlords, long hours and poor and unsafe working conditions as well as address their general wellbeing. The debate about new ways of working thinks it is looking forward, and in many ways it is. But it also harks back to another time and place.

This piece appears in the Trends23 report [subscription]