By Ian Martin in THE TIMES, 28 August 2020

If you are working from home within an hour or two of central London and enjoying the garden, you are where you are thanks to a process of high-Victorian creative destruction and invention that created commuting, the concept of the office and the modern idea of the company.

The arrival of the railway in the City of London in the 1840s is under-appreciated as an economically revolutionary event. The clerk or the manager in an insurance firm or a City bank no longer needed to live within walking distance of work. He — always he until much more recently — could live 20, 30 or more miles from the desk, comfortable in what became the suburbs and commuter towns.

By train, thousands of staff could be funnelled quickly each morning into a square-mile patch of land where the business of making money out of money grew ever bigger.

In 1841, Fenchurch Street station was opened, the first within the City boundaries. The vast Waterloo and London Bridge ventures were built south of the river on less desirable land. The impact on the topography and society of the City and the wider southeast of England in the second half of the 19th century was breathtaking. From those new London stations, developers punched railway lines out into the home counties, creating sites for millions of suburban homes with more space and gardens. This was replicated in most major cities in Britain.

In the City, the railway surge all but eliminated residential accommodation. Its land became much more valuable for building something new — the vast office. Inside those offices, companies grew and developed the rituals and infrastructure we know now: the front desk, the lift, the meeting room, the canteen and the executive floor.

We are still living, or we were until the pandemic stopped us in our tracks, with that model. The suggestion now is that this way of working is done. The office is history. Fifty of Britain’s top companies will send no staff, or very few staff, back to the office any time soon, it was reported this week. In the City, as recently as 2018, the asset manager Schroders moved 5,000 staff into an eco-friendly new headquarters on London Wall with 11 garden terraces. Now it says the commute is dead.

The optimistic view is that this is all fine, and we can ignore government pleading to get back in there to save the sandwich bars, because it is simply the acceleration of a technology-driven trend that eliminates the importance of distance. What could possibly go wrong if we carry on working from home?

A lot, I suspect. We are at the beginning of an intensely difficult tussle about what white-collar companies of the future will look like, and who, and how many, they will employ.

As has been the case so often in the development of capitalism, the City is ahead of the game in starting to rethink, quietly, what a post-Covid firm might look like. Without the office, what is a company and will it need to employ so many expensive staff here in Britain?

Publicly, big City firms and banks proclaim that most staff want to work from home and everything will carry on merrily as before. “We have had no desire — none — expressed by staff to return to the office,” says the boss of a leading City consultancy.

This may sound lovely for those in the suburbs, for now. But having written a history of the City, observing how it has always changed shape and dictated trends, my advice would be: do not bet your house and garden on this continuing.

No one should assume that the motor of capitalism will somehow stay lodged in this gear to suit our desires because we like our new work-life balance. Talk to City insiders, both veterans and new thinkers, and it is clear they are already looking beyond the simple logistical problems such as the impossibility of getting staff into a tall building in lifts with social distancing.

A senior banker tells me that the crisis has revealed who is really working and who was mainly going to lots of meetings in and out of the office to fill time. Another says that it has demonstrated how entire departments have become vastly overstaffed and underemployed.

This raises potentially painful concerns about employment. Home-working will automatically create a cheaper hiring opportunity if distance and borders are not deemed to matter at all. Why pay expensive existing middle-aged people who rarely meet in the flesh? Is someone in a different time zone available? Harry in Haslemere may think he is intrinsically worth more than Mia in Mumbai offering to do the same job in marketing for half the amount. The post-Covid, office-less company may not see it like Harry.

A new phase of offshoring — what happened to textile work and call centres — could be coming for Britain’s middle classes.

There is one flaw in the finance director’s dream of ever reducing costs, though. In all manner of industries creativity, growth and innovation rest on interaction in the office and afterwards in the pub. We are social animals.

Ambitious, young white-collar Britons have been starved of these opportunities for learning and advancement. If they flock back to offices it will be to prove themselves much keener than us over-forties wittering on about work-life balance.

All in all, it suggests that if a company offers you the chance to return to the office, it would be wise to get on the train and go to work.

 

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