Issue: November 2020

ENGLAND - Work and the City [of London]

By: Ify Okoli-Watson, Assistant General Counsel, Thomson Reuters

The hollowing out of inner cities by the continued reluctance of employees to return to the office, notably in London and New York, might see a reversal in government policy as commercial property owners grapple with near empty premises.

Pre-Covid, as recently as December 2019, the UK government was touting a new Employment Bill 2019-2020 that  it said would, amongst other things, enhance workers’ rights and support flexible working. The Bill would legislate for flexible working by default, unless employers have a good reason not to allow this (subject to consultation).

Fast forward 6 months and the government is advocating for employees to return to the office however many of us are continuing to work from home which is having an adverse effect on the businesses and transport infrastructure that relied on worker footfall.

If this state of affairs continues, it would not be surprising if the UK government, on the back of the success of its “Eat Out to Help Out” initiative, starts offering financial incentives to employers if they get their employees back to the office such as tax rebates.

Given the number of big name tech companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, that have announced “permanent” flexible working arrangements for staff, it will be interesting to see if any such financial incentives will change current trends as workers realise lower living costs through working from home (wfh) – in the end it will depend on whether incentives outweigh the potential savings employers can make in operational costs. How employees react to any pressure to return to the office will be a factor given that most employees polled indicate a preference for flexible working. the office. In other words, a best of both worlds. Coupled with the legal right of employees with 26 weeks continuous service to request flexible working as well as the ongoing Covid-related health and safety concerns – think public transport and unavoidable communal spaces such as elevators – there is bound to be some tension in employment relations. This all before the impact of Brexit on London as a financial centre is factored in. According to a  recent efinancialnews  article, demand for apartments in Paris or Frankfurt from UK bankers is heating up with a number of banks looking to relocate banking staff from London exacerbating the feeling that London is emptying out.

While many companies and unions are warning against putting pressure on employees to return to the office, some firms are offering incentives to those that do such as free food, extra childcare and executive parking spaces. These companies will need to tread carefully; strong anti-discrimination laws protect particular classes, including women and people with disabilities, precisely the groups more likely to prefer a more flexible way of working. How will career prospects, promotions and increases be impacted – could a new type of systemic discrimination arise as a result such as obvious and persistent pay gaps between office bound and wfh employees?

Although it is not clear why the UK is an outlier with reportedly up to 80% of workers returning to the office in some countries in Europe compared to only 25% in UK, perhaps this is a chance for the UK to lead the way in re-imagining the future of work and our city spaces.

The open plan office presents several challenges - social distance from your colleagues, a daily commute, high rise buildings in which ‘taking the stairs’ is just not an option. What if our cities could be re-born as “work-life “neighbourhoods so that instead of life being what happens around work, work becomes what happens around life? By re-purposing our city centres we can change gleaming office towers to affordable homes where people live and work perhaps with a few dedicated meeting spaces within residential tower blocks for those who wish to congregate in an office with others or who feel isolated working alone at home. Who knows? 

For the young, those just beginning their careers a recent Reuters article suggests that remote working has made onboarding and learning key skills such as dealing with office politics from home even more difficult than usual. Perhaps colocation multi-functional live-work spaces offer ideal opportunities for building relationships and networks in a much more authentic and enriching way.

Other obvious benefits of a work-life colocation approach include reducing or removing the need to commute, support for local businesses and a reduction in air pollution. It would also help ensure that we approach future pandemics in a more targeted fashion by enabling localised lockdowns to contain the spread of disease with minimal damage to the economy given workers can continue to live and work in their newly imagined conurbations.

Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to force the genie back into the proverbial bottle. Time to let open plan offices go the way of factory floors having outlived their usefulness. Instead of bringing life to work by providing onsite gyms, campuses, drycleaners, creches, medical centres and the like, should we be looking at bringing work to life? Tech giants like Google could consider repurposing its multimillion-dollar Googleplex campus by converting some of  the work spaces made redundant by a wfh policy to staff apartments and houses at a subsidised or, even, zero rent or mortgage payment – certain to be a differentiator in the competition for talent. In her recent article Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi argues that the rich moving out of New York City will see a re-birth of the city. Mahdawi asserts that cities won’t merely recover, but will be revitalised – become better and, hopefully, more affordable than ever. She is certain that “rumours of the city’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Cities are coming back from this”. I am inclined to agree.