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We’re currently in the middle of a number of massive experiments – experiments that were unthinkable as we entered 2020. One of those experiments is the running of the economy from back bedrooms, kitchen tables and home offices.
Many millions of people, out of necessity, are using technologies such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams to do their job to communicate with their colleagues. And the thinking goes, in some quarters at least, that now workers have been forced to use these technologies, they are embracing them.
So will this lead to the rise of agile working, and the decline of the city? Will it lead to a levelling up of jobs across the country that the Government could only dream of achieving through policy?
The last 30 years suggest the answer to this is no. This is for two main reasons.
This is an obvious point, but one that seems to be readily forgotten by commentators declaring that we’ve had our eyes opened to the wonders of technology, freeing us from our workplaces. Centre for Cities estimates of jobs that can be done remotely range from fewer than 20 per cent of all jobs in Barnsley to over 40 per cent of jobs in Edinburgh. That leaves a lot of jobs, such as restaurants and delivery services, that can’t be emancipated from their usual place of work by Zoom.
In the late 1990s the economist Frances Cairncross wrote a book called The Death of Distance, predicting that communications technologies would lead to the spreading of jobs away from cities. But the opposite has happened since then, with these footloose jobs concentrating in city centres in particular. And in 2011, 25 per cent of these jobs (think finance, software development and advertising) were located in English and Welsh city centres, despite them accounting for 0.1 per cent of all land.
This has occurred because of the benefits of face to face interaction. For all of the improvements in communications technologies – and when the broadband doesn’t drop out they are very good – they don’t replicate the benefits of being in the same room as others.
Our collective experiences in recent weeks remind us of this. You can’t read body language as well. It’s hard to judge when to make a contribution in a group meeting. And you miss out on the spontaneous flow of ideas and information that drive certain businesses on (which happens both in the office and in the pub or coffee house round the corner). Crucially, companies have shown that they are prepared to pay for this benefit too, given how much more expensive city centre offices are compared to other parts of the country.
Some companies have mooted that they will now change their practices given their experiences of this experiment, with Barclays perhaps being the biggest. But it’s worth remembering that Yahoo, one of the most advanced telecommunications companies in the world, ran this experiment years ago. The result? They banned home working. Now of course different set ups will work for different businesses, but if any large company was to be able to pull off mass agile working, Yahoo would fall into that category.
There will of course be some change in response to the crisis. And some of us are keen for it. But this is more likely to be workers deciding to work one or two days at home a week, rather than a complete untethering from the office.
Cities’ key advantage over millennia has been their ability to offer face to face interaction. The latest pandemic to affect them will no doubt require urban areas to adapt, not least in transport. But history suggests that the importance of face-to-face contact will mean that cities will continue to be a central part of economic and civic life. Distance is not dead yet.
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