Are cities dead? There are plenty who think so – but Britain should hope they’re wrong.
“The history book has not yet been written for cities” is the rallying cry emanating from Government. Those were Rishi Sunak’s words, echoing the Prime Minister’s faith when he spoke with FTSE 250 leaders last week that, post-pandemic, we will once again leave our homes and return to the office.
For the Chancellor, this belief is underpinned by our social nature as human beings – the craving to be part of a collaborative community on which, in part, the appeal of the office rests.
But the truth is that a return to the office may in fact be far more necessary for organisations than it is an inevitable outcome of our nature as social animals.
If the UK is to remain a global beacon for business post-Brexit and continue to foster the talent for which London is so famed, a return to the office will be crucial.
Young people in particular have suffered from the uncertainty and disruption of COVID-19, working from home without the workplace benefits of in-person mentorship, networking opportunities and the ‘water cooler moments’ that are at the heart of early-career learning.
In fact, while 61 per cent of desk-based workers wanted to work from home more following the pandemic according to research by Deloitte, just 16 per cent of young people want to work from home on a permanent full-time basis.
The discrepancy here suggests a significant divide between how junior staff and senior colleagues have experienced the professional impacts of lockdown, and it is easy to see why.
Isolation and poor working conditions have resulted in more than a third of young people losing enthusiasm for their company and almost two-thirds struggling to stay motivated at home. Put simply, working from home is not a sustainable option for nurturing talent in the UK workforce.
So, while numerous financial firms, including Lloyds, HSBC and Standard Chartered, are now considering a permanent switch to home and hybrid working, they would be wrong to leave the city office behind all together. Many people want to work in more agile ways, but very few want to wave goodbye to the office for good.
In a nutshell: culture is contagious when people come together in-person, while working at home has seen rising levels of loneliness and anxiety amongst young workers in particular, which has battered people’s resilience. For businesses, this presents a real risk to their performance in the immediate term, while also threatening long-term economic recovery. Without the office, I struggle to see how businesses will attract, develop and retain talent for the long term.
But the consequences could be direr still for London’s reputation in offering access to talent. If companies adopt fully remote working policies, both home-grown and international workers will question the need to relocate to a city that would then combine high living costs with a lack of face-to-face opportunities.
During a time when we are defining the legacy of Brexit for the UK, we cannot underestimate the extent to which London’s appeal is based on the opportunity to find and foster skilled employees. Addressing parliament this week, the Chancellor said that Brexit will reinforce Britain’s position as a globally pre-eminent centre for business and finance. But how exactly can this be achieved without the office?
While 1.1m businesses call London home – attracted by the promise of a stable and prosperous corporate environment – its population is now set to decline for the first time in over 30 years. If remote workers begin to flood out of the capital, businesses may begin to question the worth of their London footprint. More workers will then, in turn, leave the city – and so the cycle begins.
The Chancellor is firmly in the camp of believing our cities will thrive again, that there are better times ahead as the vaccine rollout begins, and that our social nature will pull us back to the office as part of a ‘Big Bang 2.0’ for the UK economy.
I’m confident that he is right to think so, but the fact remains that a return to the office is not just going to be an inevitable outcome of our social nature: it is a crucial necessity for the future of UK business.