Will the Covid-19 pandemic permanently derail our urban world and end the eminence of the greatest global cities, like London?
The answer depends on whether the switch to working from home is permanent. Our city centres are ghostly quiet because so many of us have stopped commuting and are dialling into our jobs.
But not all of us.
What is striking is how tremendously unequal the switch to working from home has been in the past year. In May 2020, 50 million American jobs had been lost because of the pandemic; and 50 million Americans were online, working from home, for the same reason. But that 50 million skewed overwhelmingly towards the best educated. Some 70 per cent of people with an advanced degree were Zooming into work; but it was only 15 per cent of people who had ‘only’ a high school education.
This enormous disparity tells us something. As I explained in a speech at Policy Exchange last week, to mark the relaunch of the think tank’s Liveable London Unit, a world without face-to-face interaction is a world that gets rid of all of those service sector jobs – in retail, leisure and hospitality – that have been the bulwark of employment for those with less education.
Unlike workers in professional and business services, these people are not able to Zoom their way to economic survival. For them, working from home makes London unaffordable and unlivable.
In my view, however, those who are Zooming into work should not necessarily kid themselves that their careers will be on track forever.
Yes, there is some evidence to suggest that – to begin with at least – people who work from home are as productive as they were in the office. Experienced call-centre workers, as Nicholas Bloom at Stanford has shown, may even be more productive doing the job from home.
However, those who are hired into jobs on a working-from-home basis tend to be less productive. Telling a new hire, “look, you never have to show up” might not be such a great idea. Workers who are only marginally committed to the firm will likely not be as productive. It might explain why, for example, computer programmers – who can work perfectly well from home – are not being hired in nearly the same numbers as before Covid.
Data produced by some of my students at Harvard also shows that the probability of getting promoted into a mid- or high-level position increases if you are in the office.
Getting ahead – learning and growing as an employee – is probably something that is done best by being at work in person, by being live, rather than on a screen. My own experience would support this: I can communicate information via Zoom but can I use it to inspire a 19-year-old about mathematical economics in the same way? Sadly, it isn’t possible. There just isn’t the same emotional bond. And those bonds are part of any decent employer who’s trying to get more out of their workers, to make them more productive.
The Covid-19 pandemic has given this debate added currency.
The truth, however, is that the working from home question isn’t new at all – it’s one I’ve grappled with almost all of my professional life. In 1980, Alvin Toffler wrote a book called Third Wave in which he predicted that the rise in fax machines, telephones and other technologies would mean that before long we would decamp to electronic cottages and dial in to our jobs.
For 40 years, Toffler has proven to be wrong – because workplaces where we have face-to-face contact have proven to be resilient. As I argued in Triumph of the City, what the era of globalisation and new technologies have done is radically increase the economic returns of being smart. We are a social species that gets smart by being around other smart people.
So in a world in which ideas have become more complicated, it has become easier for things to get lost in translation – and more valuable to be in the same room as whoever we are working with.
Will we go back to exactly the way we were before Covid-19? Possibly not. The age of Zoom won’t end urban life, but it does mean that capital – and talent – is more mobile than before.
Liveability is therefore more important than ever. A city like London can’t only be a place of productivity and innovation – it has to be a place of pleasure too, as it has been for centuries.
Cities are the absence of physical space between people, and so social distancing was essentially the rapid-fire de-urbanization of the world.
Yet if we end the risk of future pandemic, just as our 19th century forbears dealt with cholera by building sewers and clean water systems, this experiment with social isolation will end quickly. Yes, some jobs will continue to be done remotely. Yes, some companies will shrink their commercial footprints. But we all thrive on the company of others, both at home and at work.
This year of plague and social isolation should, if anything, remind us of the joys of the city. A human alone is a weak thing, unable to compete with most major predators. Human beings working together have been doing miraculous things in cities for millenia.
The age of urban miracles is not over. If the Government raises its shield against disease and can ensure that the UK’s capital is a good place to do business and live, then the people of London can get back to their ordinary business of inventing the future.