City Centres Aren’t Going To Recover, Not The Way They Were

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From our Swindon Correspondent:

From the Daily Mail

 
Boris Johnson’s clarion call for the nation’s workforce to return to offices to save Britain’s economy will be treated with caution by swathes of employers and employees, they tell MailOnline.

The Prime Minister urged businesses operating remotely to ‘get back into work’ to breathe life back into the cash-starved high street and jump-start the recovery.

He and Chancellor Rishi Sunak are said to be aghast at the impact empty offices are having on town centre shops and restaurants – and worried that widespread homeworking is wrecking the UK’s productivity.

The nature of all technological change in offices is normally that a few early adopters leap on it, and gradually, it gets adopted by everyone over the years. Startups in low risk areas tend to take it on first, then over time, it becomes more normal. The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) in Bristol was working like this in the 1990s.
Over the past few years, pre-Covid there’s been a decline in season ticket sales of around 3% per annum. Work from home was already happening before this. It was going to take a long time to work through, but every business has been thrown in at the deep end and had to make it work. After a little spluttering and thrashing about, they’ve got their doggy paddle on and it’s all fine. Many of them have realised this is all just fine. Productivity of their businesses haven’t been impaired.
So, businesses aren’t going back. And that’s going to hit certain businesses. There’s a lot of businesses that support all that office work. Around Reading station there’s a Starbucks, Nero, Pret, Greggs, Sainsburys and Tesco metro. All those office workers need places to get lunch, coffee, a new pair of tights if they’ve laddered them. Without the office workers, most of this is going to decline.
The mistake that these idiots have made is to see this as productive, rather than what it really is, which is a cost. Buying an espresso in Starbucks or a sandwich from Sainsburys costs more than nipping out of the study and into the kitchen to make a sarnie and a coffee. It’s going to be more expensive than going to a cafe near where you live, because of the premium rents near city centres. If we can do without going into the office, that’s rail travel, and premium food and drink costs saved. Assuming we deliver as much work, that’s a productivity gain.
Mr Johnson, who wore a mask for the first time in public yesterday, said: ‘It’s very important that people should be going back to work if they can now.’

But employers who have spent months adapting to coronavirus lockdown are hesitant and say some of their workers do not want to return while the constantly changing guidance is creating confusion.

People don’t want to return because for most office people, most of the time, there’s no benefit and large costs in season tickets, commuting time and so forth. And people will be sharpening up their CVs looking for jobs with “4 days at home” on them.
Yet businesses which depend on getting customers through the door on a daily basis, such as the beleaguered Pret a Manger sandwich shop, are in desperate need of workers to return to offices.
I’d probably be looking for what else I could do than running city centre cafes right now. They’re still going to exist, but there’s going to be some severe pruning of numbers over the next few years.

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Michael van der Riet
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Michael van der Riet

Yes, and you could get a glass of water from the tap at a percentage of a percentage of the cost of buying it in a plastic bottle. Funny things, humans. We have illogical tastes and preferences and some would even go for a Beemer over the logical choice of a Trabant. I’ve seen lots and lots of dismissed, fired and retrenched people try, instead of getting another job, to go self-employed. Only a tenth of them make it because working from home is very unproductive for most of us. At the office there is KITA to keep our noses… Read more »

Bloke on M4
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Bloke on M4

There’s a big difference between self-employment and working from home. Maybe some people can’t make it, but a lot of people do.

Spike
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Spike

Didn’t take “a change in human nature” for consulting the phone to replace scheduling a trip to the library, and it won’t either to make home-working feasible for a lot of things. A change in self-discipline, maybe, and in the way we measure work product.

Bloke on M4
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Bloke on M4

If you don’t have self-discipline to work hard at home, you don’t have the self-discipline to work in a modern office where you can spend all day on Facebook or sending messages with your phone.

The bigger blockage has been idiot management who can’t deal with measuring people by productivity. If you’re on the production line at Honda, the hours you work really matter because you’re part of a process where seconds count. If you’re fixing software bugs, you’re not.

John B
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John B

Home working has been around for a long time. A lot of Luddites were home workers… not easy to get a power loom in the front parlour, hence their disquiet when mechanisation and manufactories came along.

In more recent times: secretarial work, clothing industry, accounting, admin, stuffing envelopes, telephone cold-calling, babysitting, arts & crafts, catering, hair-dressing, for example. Some may involve being self-employed, other is company or contract employment, some part-time.

Esteban
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Esteban

Missing the point that a lot more workers’ productivity can be measured without direct supervision. Call centers, for one example, can let employees work from home while getting detailed data on number and length of calls handled, percentage of calls successfully handled, etc. And of course, calls are recorded and listened to as needed to judge how employees are performing.

Employers, customers, employees, etc. will have noticed that “hey, this worked out fine” and no longer demand that employees fight traffic and pay high rent for downtown office space.

Bloke on M4
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Bloke on M4

Call centres aren’t really an issue here. They’re generally in cheap places like the outskirts of Swansea or Runcorn. Cheap places to live with a 15 minute commute time.

Michael van der Riet
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Michael van der Riet

Yes, call centres have a KITA metric. Most offices do not and the way that the supervisor supervises is to eyeball the workers to see if they are working. There is little difference between taking a shot at being self-employed working from home and being employed working from home. Because of human nature, most people do not have the self-discipline. But time will tell.

John B
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John B

And time-cost saving by not having to spend hours commuting = more leisure time. And it will solve the housing ‘crisis’, as all that unused business space can be converted into dwelling, which will help sustain coffee shops, etc. But that means letting things develop naturally as determined by the herd, not as wished for, planned and directed by ‘Government’… that would never do because then politicians and civil servants would be redundant. Boris ‘ follows the science step by step’ but not enough to know having had the virus recently he has immunity; can neither infect nor be infected.… Read more »

john77
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john77

Actually Boris was either clumsy or misquoted – he amended/clarified that he wants people to work from home if they can. So it’s only those who cannot work from home being sent back to work (with a few exceptions such as eyebrow pluckers). I agree with comments above re the cost and inefficiency of commuting and city lunches. So a lot of jobs are going to disappear – reported GDP will consequently slump without most of us being any the worse off as a result. What this will do is reduce shop rents in city centres – either because the… Read more »

Pat
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Pat

Whilst I agree there will be an increase in working from home, it’ll certainly not be everyone, and the extent will be unknowable for a year. But if the priority is now to get people back to work then the first thing is to reassure people that the danger has passed. With only 15 deaths reported nationally yesterday it clearly has, and I note that the deaths have followed a smooth curve, with no inflections caused either by the lockdown, the various relaxations, the various beach assemblies nor the protests, so I doubt the precautions taken have achieved anything beyond… Read more »

Spike
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Spike

The precautions HAVE achieved something. They have stretched “flu season” into July.

Likewise in the US. Federal funding for testing at a manic level has revealed a shocking number of positives. (Each a “grim milestone.”) Though there is still no word on how many of these are past positives getting re-tested, governors will not let this crisis go and are trotting out new “data-driven” emergency decrees.

djc
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djc

“Mr Johnson, who wore a mask for the first time in public yesterday, said: ‘It’s very important that people should be going back to work if they can now.’”

Maybe you should not wear that mask then, it isn’t going to convince the bedwetters to emerge fro behind the sofa, nor do all these petty, contradictory and often impractical ‘guideline’ make going into town for work or pleasure any more attractive.

TD
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TD

I’m not completely convinced. True that the trend towards more working from home has been going for some years now and it has worked fine for many businesses and employees. During these shutdowns certainly some businesses have found that they’ve managed to continue on having everyone work from home, but lots of those businesses are just keeping their noses above water. The real test of big changes to downtowns will be will come once this pandemic has passed and whether businesses that operate more traditionally outperform those that operate with everyone working from home. If the remote workforces prove they… Read more »

john77
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john77

There are two costs – that to the employee from commuting and that to the employer from lower productivity while they are working from home. A factory production line cannot be operated remotely, many “service” jobs can An inspired employer will find an optimum trade-off, which may involve one, maybe two, hot desk(s) in the office for when his/her employees absolutely *must* come in. Many of us had found this trade-off yonks ago but many had continued in the old ways because “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” so some will choose to mostly work-from-home and some wil choose… Read more »

john77
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john77

Tim, you really need to indicate which blogs require a double paragraph keying to separate paragraphs.

Spike
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Spike

John, if you’re talking about reader replies, it seems that if you type enough text to get truncated with “Read more »”, then your paragraphs (and any other highlighting) are squeezed out of the version initially presented to other readers.

Chester Draws
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Chester Draws

Boris has had Covid 19. The mask is *entirely* useless. He can’t get it, and he can’t transmit it. He is only supporting irrationality by wearing it. Look at those countries with shortish lockdown that are back in business. That is a better guide to this working from home than prognostication. My brother in law can do his job 100% from home. But only because he learned all the bits of it in the office, largely from those around him. If his work continues from home, his replacement will have no way to learn the job. NZ has returned back… Read more »

TD
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TD

I have seen reports of people catching Covid twice. That’d be rough but reportedly possible