Remote work and the future of the high street

The high street is dying. Remote/home working as a result of COVID 19 is exacerbating this. But I think there’s an opportunity to do everything better.

Caveats: OK, I’m not an economist; I’m not a town planner. I have no expertise here. I’m well aware of this. And I’m sure there’s a reason no one is talking about this particular approach. But I present it anyway.

A dream

There is a sub-urban town where COVID changed everything for the better. The high street was dying, but the council saw an opportunity and took it.

Cars are few and far between. Congestion is minimal. Yet the high street thrives. White-collar office workers can choose to work from home, or to gather with colleagues in town-centre offices. Their commutes are short and many cycle or use the cheap, electric buses.

Health has improved. Air quality is high. The local economy is booming. Social mobility is high and unemployment is low.

Planners from other towns come just to see what has been done. It is a model of sustainable and equitable growth.

But how did they get there from here?

This town is a dream, of course. But I’ve long had ideas about how the high street might look different based on my experience of many years working both in corporates and for myself as a freelance, remote and home worker.

The Remote Working Fallacy

The COVID 19 lockdown has forced many people to work from home and there has been a boom in remote and home working. Large companies have announced that offices will be closed for the medium term, or that remote working will now be permanent.

In response, the UK government are urging people to go back to work to stimulate life and the economy in city and town centres. And I’m seeing a lot of push-back on this idea of the return to office life: home working has been shown to be effective; why should we return?

Yet, in my bubble at least, I’m seeing overwhelming support for home/remote working, and little critique of it.

Admittedly, my bubble contains a lot of white collar office and information sector workers, many of whom already home work or remote work. And this includes myself – effectively a home/remote worker for the last 10 years.

The downside to the economy has been discussed a LOT. But other issues haven’t. So beyond the death of Pret-a-Manger and the obvious “you can’t chat in person with your colleagues” thing (today known as “Proper bants”, “The boss’s jokes” and “Hearing buzzwords”), what might the critique of home-working be?

Here’s a few things that bother me about it:

Equality: Not everyone has an office or spare room in their house that they can use to work from. So if you require people to work from home there’s no guarantee that they have an appropriate space to work from, and you might put off attracting people into jobs if they don’t have such a space.

Equipment: Full-time office work from home requires a desk, a decent chair, a decent, ergonomic keyboard and mouse, and if you’re doing video calls you may want a better camera and mic than you have in your laptop, or maybe a headset.

I’m sure many employers happily provide these, but I’m also sure that some won’t, expecting the employer to stump up for them instead.

Health and Safety: Large offices usually have people who do health and safety, ergonomics and occupational health. I wonder how much of this crucial input to the well-being of employees is missed with home/remote working.

Transitions: I actually find the transition between home and work very useful. Granted, my commute is normally a 15 – 20 minute bike ride, but even a bus ride is a good time to chill out, reflect on what’s coming or has happened in the day, listen to a podcast.

I find the near-instant transition from work-brain to home/dad-brain when I’m working at home really quite difficult.

Plus, my bike ride is one of my main forms of regular exercise.

The home-to-office transition is actually very useful for some. But only if it’s short.

Because I also think we have a real problem with long-distance commuting, which is bad for people, really expensive, and unsustainable.

Utility costs: Office-working from home requires a good, fast internet connection, and working from home will increase your utility bills. Plus you’ll have to provide things like your own tea/coffee. These are savings for the employer, but I wonder if they are passed on?

Arguably, if the employee was commuting to the office, then they could be saving money here. And the employer may need additional IT infrastructure to provide things like VPNs. So some things will balance out.

But I do wonder if some unscrupulous companies might see this as a way to cut costs at the expense of employees absorbing the impact.

Overall, my main worry is that some corporates might see this as a chance to ditch large office costs, but then not fulfill their new responsibilities to their new home-workers.

I could be wrong, and I’m sure that most companies will do a good job here. But I’m also sure that not all will.

Let’s sum up:

Remote/homeworking has benefits:

  • Employees don’t have to commute.
  • Employees get more flexibility.
  • Employers can recruit from a broader pool of (non-local) people.
  • Employers potentially have much lower costs.

But remote/home working may have drawbacks for some people:

  • A negative effect on the town/city-centre economy.
  • Issues with not meeting and working face-to-face.
  • Employees may not have a space to work in and this may prevent people from applying for or getting jobs.
  • Employers may not invest in employees’ well-being and compensate them for additional equipment and utilities.
  • Employees may lack useful transition time or not get exercise – never leaving the house can be a thing!

The high street issue

I think the high-street issue is pretty clear.

The boom in online shopping and the exodus of companies from expensive town-centre offices, all compounded by the effects of COVID 19, means retail on the high street is dying.

But, by my observation, service industries still seem to be doing OK, if not booming! There are SO many cafe’s and coffee shops in my local town centre now. I still travel in specifically to do banking sometimes. People seem to use hairdressers and gyms and post offices and so on. Things that you have to go in person to do.

So…

So what can we do instead? How do we get the benefits of home remote working and avoid the pitfalls, while also benefiting the high street?

Remote working hubs

Here’s where the dream comes in.

The council, with support and commitment from a collective of companies, converts some dis-used office space in the town centre into remote working hubs.

Larger companies, with a workforce spread across a number of different “home” locations, rent space in these hubs for the employees that live in and around that town.

The space is secure and has good connectivity secured by the company VPN. It’s the company’s space, so they are still required to furnish and equip it.

Regular visits from health and safety/occupational health ensure legal compliance and wellbeing of staff.

Smaller companies can rent this space too, and you could build in co-working for individuals. The space can run events – both educational and social – for people that use the building. Co-working spaces like this have begun to thrive in recent years prior to COVID 19 and lockdown!

Travel planning is done properly and multiple incentives are offered to encourage employees to not use single-occupancy cars, with walking, cycling and well-subsidised bus networks encouraging people to not use cars at all unless they have special needs.

For the high street, retail declines, but services boom.

People go back to the town centre in the week. They eat and drink in the morning and at lunchtime, sure. But there are also collection and return points for their online-ordered goods. They get their hair cut or do a bit of shopping in their lunch break and pick up some things for dinner before going home. Maybe they pop out for dinner with some colleagues or visit a bar or cinema after work? They try out technology in phone shops and get advice and customer service in person for things.

This plan:

  • taps into the booming co-working culture;
  • gives people the flexibility of choosing home OR office work;
  • reduces commute distances/times while still enabling transitions if people want them;
  • gets people into the town centre and grows town-centre service economies, while propping up retail a little too;
  • enables employees to be properly supported by employers in an real office environment;
  • retains – probably improves – equality of employment opportunities, by not demanding people travel long distances to a central office, but also not demanding they have a space to work from at home

I see two possible downsides:

  • This is more expensive for larger employers as they may now maintain multiple office locations.
  • Large corporates may not be happy sharing a building with other large corporates. Could information leak between them if people intermingle in communal areas? What are the physical and “cyber” security risks? Are they worse than home-working? Or just different?

Could this work?

There will certainly be office-based roles that need to be in a specific location. But this approach seems, to me, to be hugely beneficial to pretty much everyone. A best-of-both-worlds compromise between central offices and home-working.

I wonder why it’s not been discussed much? Has it not been thought of? Is it just too hard a change to make? Are those security issues just too big a barrier to overcome?

As I said at the start – I’m not qualified to be coming up with ideas like this and analysing the pros and cons. So: over to you… who IS? Could this work? What are the blockers? How might we take steps towards this dream?

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