How do we manage our urban-centric economy, without being forced back to the office?

Before Covid, the general consensus among business was that office work could not be done from home. While this once absolute truth has been debunked, there are definite drawbacks to a solely Zoom-centric work life. Not to mention that working in total isolation puts our urban-centric economy, reliant on the habitual daily movement of workers, in minor jeopardy.

But Dominic Raab is slightly off the mark when he says, “we need to get people back to work”. We actually need to get people travelling back to the cities and towns, because the lack of spending we used do to and from work is “damaging the economy”. It is also true that working from home is not for everyone, and a total absence of workplace interaction can negatively impact long term performance.

However, rather than rushing back to the old norm at a risky present, Government must be smart and manage this shift, not oppose it. And there are indications they do not have a choice. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ latest commercial survey indicated 93% of its members are scaling back their office space in the next two years. Academics at Cardiff University and the University of Southampton also found 9 out of 10 people wanted to continue working from home in some capacity.

Smart employers will already be replacing their office managers with time managers, deciding who needs to be physically in work, and when. It is imperative that we are not complacent about the health risks offices pose, but workers do need social interaction to develop their skills. However, a recent report by Mckinsey, ‘Re-imagining work and office life after Covid-19’, argues that this is the moment to dispense with “suboptimal old habits and systems”. And in the midst of turmoil, businesses have already shown their ability to adapt.

But how can this new work-life balance also recover lost economic activity? The Government can acknowledge that people will be spreading themselves more evenly between the urban and the suburban. The former’s strength is its concentration of cultural and leisure activities that attract people, while the latter now has access to more potential customers. We can help save our culture and revive the high street, simultaneously. But this requires the Government to be brave, and continue the interventionist success of Eat Out to Help Out.

Subsidise eating out in suburban geographic areas to encourage people to spend on the days they are working from home. At the same time, subsidise cultural and leisure activities giving people a reason to venture into cities or towns. Anything from a haircut to a museum exhibition. This could mean a revival of the high street in the form of work-friendly cafes and a boost to local hospitality. While going out in the city inevitably involves spending on food, drink, and travel.

This alone would not stem the damage this pandemic is having on employment. But it would help manage the health crisis, alongside the changes people would like to make to their working lives. If you added a four day working week to the mix that would also help prevent job losses and give people an extra day to spend. And, realistically, the Government must accept that jobs at chain restaurants such as Pret will be lost.

This is the creative destruction of capitalism that we love to hate. And this is where an extended furlough provides the bridge, whereby incomes and consumption can be maintained while at least some new jobs can be created. We need people to have money to spend if there is to be a recovery; universal credit is pittance, making the end of October a worrying date. So, having shown their interventionist hand so early, sacrilege to the ‘free marketeers’, the question is, how Keynesian will this Government get.

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