How is flexible and remote working changing our towns and cities?
We all remember the eerie photos and videos from the first weeks of lockdown - city centres suddenly still as we hit pause and office-based businesses leaping into action to get staff set up to work remotely virtually overnight. We went home, pulled together as a nation, and waited to see what would happen next...
As autumn gets into full swing with children back at school, life in our city centres in parts of the UK start to feel a return to ‘normal’. While many are not back in the office full-time, on the whole our city centres are gradually seeing more footfall, as people and businesses adapt and keep things moving. Here we take a look at the key trends that are reshaping how and where we work, and consider the impact they might have on our towns and cities in the short and long term.
Flexible and remote working - it’s nothing new
While the events of this year have resulted in many people working at home for the first time, a sea change around flexible working has been drifting in over a number of years. Back in January we reported on the rise of flexible and remote working as one of several key trends helping businesses, staff and free agents take more control over the shape of their own working lives. There are pros and cons. On the one hand, for some working from home during the pandemic has ushered in a new age of connectedness, inclusiveness and productivity, with managers embracing new leadership styles and giving people more freedom, flexibility, and personal accountability over the tasks they manage at home. Many have also been able to achieve a better work/life balance. On the flip side of that, working from home can make it harder to maintain clear boundaries between our work and home lives - and it can be particularly hard on those with others to look after at home, or who lack indoor and outdoor space.
Employers face questions around creative thinking and culture without everyone sharing the same physical workspace; it’s a balancing act which will require real thought. With the possibility of more requests for flexible working arrangements over the long-term, this could have a knock-on effect on city centres and the businesses that operate in them, from coffee shops and taxi services to retail businesses and landlords.
Tech change is happening faster
Speaking of knock-on effects, it turns out nothing causes a spike in technology like a global pandemic! As businesses have rushed to implement safety measures to protect staff and customers and reduce financial impact, those that have been able to pivot their business models, take their services to digital platforms, and leverage technology like Click & Collect and subscription-based models have been best-placed to mitigate the impact of lockdown. Many businesses have made the move to online, and this trend in e-commerce continues to grow with Barclaycard's September spend report showing a 7.7% increase in online spend.
This tech acceleration has spilled over into our city centres and public spaces, as local authorities and governments around the world invest to help us all keep going in the new normal. In the UK, we’ve welcomed a whole spectrum of changes big and small, from the new £45 contactless limit, to serious investment in cleaner, greener transport in Manchester - including much larger pedestrian areas to encourage walking where possible.
It doesn’t have to end there. Inspired by the quiet city streets, reduced CO2 emissions and clean air seen during the harshest restrictions, in Germany city planners are looking to transform inner-city life with adaptive traffic control lights, smart parking management, and “pop-up” bicycle lanes aimed at encouraging people to leave their cars at home. All of this will help make German cities healthier, greener and smarter - and save individuals up to €500 a year. Could the events of 2020 speed up those smart-city visions talked about for years?
More ‘at-home’ businesses
It’s not just office workers who are seeing the benefits of working from home. Fuelled by the unusual situation we find ourselves in this year, we are also seeing a surge in small and independent business owners setting up shop at home; from personal trainers and beauty therapist to bakeries, takeaways and Instagram clothing businesses, more and more people are discovering the financial and lifestyle benefits of working in their own garage, garden or spare room. Almost 50% more businesses were created in June 2020 than in June 2019, according to the Centre for Entrepreneurs, and July set a new record with more than 81,000 new businesses registered - many of them by resourceful graduates.
The rise of ‘reverse commuting’
There’s no question that coronavirus is having a significant impact on transport - specifically, the number of those commuting. According to the Transport for London, on a typical Thursday in February, 151,741 people got out at Bank tube station - a number that plunged to fewer than 2,000 in April. By the first Thursday in September, it was still only 20,806. Covid-19 has made many of us rethink our living and working situations - many have been thinking about how to create a lifestyle they love and that works for them on a practical level. As a result, rents in city centres have fallen as tenants, now able to work from home, have moved out to suburbia. But we’re also seeing the rise of a surprising new trend, “reverse commuting”, where Londoners are looking to travel out for jobs.
Getting back to business
So, what does the future hold for the UK’s city centres? While many are working from home, we have to remember that we all share our workspaces for a reason. Being able to hash things out in meetings, have conversations in the halls, bounce ideas off one another and pop out with our colleagues to the local coffee or sandwich bar have been integral parts of our working culture - and the fabric of our businesses. For now, coronavirus is challenging the way we live and work in our cities, but when we return, it could be to calmer, more efficient transport, more seamless shops and services, and happier and more productive people.