In The Good Life, a much-loved 1970s sitcom, one of the main characters would regularly arrive home from work cursing the trials and tribulations of the daily commute. Jerry Leadbetter was an affluent senior manager in a design firm based in central London. By contrast, his stress-free next-door neighbours in Surbiton, Tom and Barbara Good, had opted for a green, self-sufficient lifestyle. They would have been at home all day, working to their own timetable.
Along with The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, the BBC comedy was among the first attempts in popular culture to explore alternative lifestyles and question the merits of a nine-to-five office-based existence. Made almost half a century ago, its theme seems strangely contemporary. Right now, Jerry’s modern equivalent will almost certainly be working from home. And the signs are that they will not be going back to the office in the city any time soon.
On Monday, it quickly became clear that Boris Johnson’s attempts to encourage people back to Britain’s deserted business districts and urban centres was a major flop. Despite Mr Johnson’s cajoling, footfall in central London was a mere 2% higher than the previous week and 68% down on last year. There are obvious Covid-related reasons why this should be so. In a strange halfway house August of local lockdowns and rising infection curves, people are wary of resuming old habits. Many parents may be waiting until schools fully reopen – if they do – in September.
But it also seems clear that, in certain types of work, the lockdown is accelerating a transition that was already in train as a result of the Zoom-style possibilities afforded by digital technology. The glass palaces of corporate capitalism have suddenly lost a little bit of their aura. The chief executive of Barclays, Jes Staley, has suggested that piling 7,000 employees into a tall building “may be a thing of the past”. Large numbers of businesses have reported that productivity has been maintained, or even enhanced, as people work from home. Firms’ accountants will have taken note.
It is possible that if a significant resurgence of the pandemic is avoided this winter, something that resembles the old working world may gradually re-emerge. But Morgan Stanley has predicted that, throughout Europe, the numbers of those working from home for all or some of the week will more than double to 30% by 2030. Lawyers, bankers, tech geeks, clothes designers and estate agents are all likely to be less visible in our urban centres than they used to be.
The environmental upside to decongesting our cities and travelling less is clear. And for many people, working from home has brought a welcome degree of personal freedom. But if change is coming, it would be foolish not to think through and plan for a profound societal shift with some potentially damaging consequences. The high-end service economy, which has driven the prosperity of western cities in the post-industrial era, has also kept thousands of restaurants, cafes, dry cleaners and taxi drivers in business. Recent data from the Resolution Foundation indicated that only one in 10 lower earners, many of them women, are able to work from home. A sudden unravelling of urban life will further limit their possibilities.
The normalisation of remote working will also have an impact on younger workers who, though digitally native, are also more likely to live in cramped circumstances and miss the kind of formative experiences that happen in a physical workplace. A recent American study found that far more 18- to 24-year-olds felt they were less rather than more productive at home. More broadly, the workplace can function as a valuable place of bonding and creativity, as well as a mixed social space that does people the service of removing them from their online social media bubbles.
There is a danger that the Covid-19 experiment in working from home will trigger a paradigm shift that will mostly benefit the bottom line of businesses and their senior employees. The consequences of the ongoing digital revolution in work need to be better managed than that. A good life for the modern Jerry Leadbetter should not be at the expense of those without his options.