Disruption on the line

Disruption on the line

Let me take you back to a different time, a time when we worried about how the transport system was going to cope with the weight of numbers placed on it. Just six years ago, the tube drivers were confident enough of their clout that they could strike to try to get their demands. The strike was not total, but the effect was nevertheless crippling for London.

Yet, as an LSE study found, a funny thing happened. Improvise, adapt, overcome. London’s commuters scrambled by whatever route they could to get to work. And one in twenty actually found a better route to work. The net effect was ultimately that the tube strikes were a net positive for the transport network – the short term drawbacks for the majority were outweighed by the long term gains for that smaller group.

For whatever reason, disrupting the previous equilibrium, even with an apparent negative action, resulted in a better long term outcome.

Disruptive innovation is a much-misunderstood concept. The disruptor does not need to be and often is not as “good” as what it challenges. The classic example is barbed wire, which in all except one respect is nowhere near as good a boundary marker as picket fences. But it had one overwhelming advantage – it was incredibly cheap and easy to roll out across the prairies. That one advantage was enough to make it dominate that market.

All of which makes it baffling why the government is quite so desperate to take Britain back to the office working practices of February. Normally the government would praise efficiency savings to the skies. And it’s not as though home working is anything new: Richard Littlejohn informed us that he’d been doing it for thirty years.

Even since the tube strikes of 2014, there had been an increased drift to working from home and agile working among office workers, with technological advances making it increasingly possible. For all that, many had not seriously considered the idea until forced to by Covid-19. Once they tried it, however, large numbers have enthusiastically adopted it, finding to their surprise that the technology is basically up to it (a tribute both to their companies’ IT departments and to the government’s investment in the last few years in broadband infrastructure). Most have no fond memories of commuting and many enjoy the extra time released to them at home. It turns out that many find that Zoom or Teams is quite as close as they feel that they need to be to work colleagues on a daily basis.

This is not true of everyone. Some find working from home distracting. Some, particularly younger workers, may not have adequate office space at home. Some miss their work colleagues. When they are able, those workers will be keen to cut loose, footloose and slip on those work day shoes.

Those, however, who are able to work well enough from home a lot of the time are going to carry on doing so. In the longer term few workers who were in the office five days a week are going to work permanently from home. Many, however, are going to be working a lot more from home and many of their bosses are going to be delighted that they are going to do so: think of the office rents that they will be able to save. We can only guess what scale of change we are looking at, but my guess in the long term is that 50% of office workers will spend 30% less time in their offices than they did previously. That equates to a 15% drop in city activity.

There is absolutely no point in the government walking in front of the locomotive of history with a red flag. Business and worker interests align in favour of continuing this experiment and no ukase from the politburo is going to override that.

The government is rumoured to be concerned about the speed of the change. This seems entirely misplaced. It’s happened. Moreover, the change will affect those parts of the country that are most able to bear the shock: the business districts of Britain’s work-generating cities. Property developers and city centre retail operations will be marmalised. But that’s economic life. You might just as well try to revive the cotton mills.

New uses will be found for those city centres if the government is imaginative and nimble (Spartan if of the day there). Meanwhile, those home workers are going to do more spending of their income around their homes, revitalising suburbs and country towns. There will be less pressure on the transport system in precisely the areas that were most creaking at the seams, especially in and around London. We are already apparently seeing interest in moving from city centres and suburbs to the countryside, as families see the possibility of striking a work-life balance at a higher level on both fronts than they had previously imagined was possible. Some of those big infrastructure projects like HS2, already of questionable value, can potentially be scrapped without regret.

There are challenges. Companies are going to have to think hard about how they maintain their ethos, training and effective management. Those companies with a network of offices nationwide will need to consider whether they can consolidate those and if not what it means to be, for example, a London office worker as opposed to a Birmingham office worker and whether a pay differential can still be justified. So far, few seem to have begun thinking about such things.

The implications for politics are hard to assess yet. Pretty and culturally vibrant areas are likely to thrive at the expense of brownfield areas, and geographical proximity to office hubs will become less important, though still relevant. This could result in some geographical equalising. However, there is no reason to expect a social equalising within that geographical equalising – indeed, we might see the opposite.

With distance not dying but certainly waning, new threats emerge. London has looked supremely dominant as the financial world city in its neighbourhood, culturally outclassing Frankfurt, its nearest challenger in the EU. With its culture in indefinite hibernation, office life abating and with the further disruption of Brexit on the horizon, London must look to its laurels. Its decline has been often predicted and in reality it has grown ever stronger. Now, at a time when no one is discussing it, it might face a greater threat than ever before. The challenge can be met but it has to be seen and addressed. Has it been seen?

A confident, forward-looking government would be planning and preparing. Instead, the current government is futilely hectoring businesses and workers to turn back the clock. It’s not going to happen. Time to get on the front foot.

Alastair Meeks

(This article was written from a poolside in southern Italy. I’m practising what I preach.)

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