Office Politics - Is it Going to Work

The pandemic is a memory but what do we do with WFH?

By Roger Bootle

July 5 2023

Working from home was inevitable. Covid forced our collective hand, and it became abundantly clear most jobs could be effectively done remotely. But is the office dead?

If so, it would represent a return to the era before the pre-Industrial Revolution, when work was carried out in fields near home or in the home itself. It was rare for people to have to travel to work.

Factories changed all that. They required people to work closely together in one building. The modern office is effectively a form of factory. As living close to the office became both less attractive and more expensive, the move to more distant living began. Commuting was born.

But there are benefits to working in an office surrounded by colleagues, not least a ready social life. People acquire and perfect skills, share ideas, and absorb the wisdom of older colleagues. This is difficult to do remotely.

Ditto corporate culture. How do you inculcate the values and spirit of an organisation remotely? To some extent this can be done through technology, as the success of many businesses with overseas offices attests. But even then, because remote working makes it more difficult to maintain close co-operation and a sense of shared identity, senior management, and often more junior staff, need to
visit other parts of the international network to avoid
fragmentation and keep an eye on things.

"The good news is that as the demand for office space reduces, more space will become available for residential use"
"The good news is that as the demand for office space reduces, more space will become available for residential use"

For some people, the absence of the daily commute has been a massive plus factor, enabling them to enjoy more quality time, either doing work tasks, or with their families. But this benefit is felt very differently by people at different stages of their career. In my firm, Capital Economics, there is a decided gap between age groups. On the whole, older people with settled domestic arrangements and usually enjoying decidedly higher incomes, are more than happy to work in their large, comfortable houses located in some leafy village 60 or 70 miles distant from London.

But things aren’t at all the same if you are a young professional living on your own or in a shared flat in distinctly non-leafy Balham, where the ‘office’ is a bedroom or a shared kitchen table.

Such claustrophobic conditions can not only hinder their effectiveness at work, but also impair their happiness and even compromise their mental health. Then there are the heating and electricity bills to consider. It is no surprise, therefore, that many young people have been keen to return to the office.
Maintaining professionalism is another challenge. It’s all very well for motivated and diligent employees to work from home, but what about all those people, often unmotivated and under managed, particularly in the public sector? How do you ensure their effectiveness? Difficulties in renewing passports and driving licences suggest that WFH has led to a collapse of productivity in the public sector that was hardly exemplary in the first place.

While the death of the office may have been exaggerated, I suspect that we are in for a long period of hybrid working: Some people will work wholly in the office, some will work entirely at home, but the majority will do a bit of both. There will be another powerful trend. We will work fewer hours. The move to a four-day working week has already begun and this will be intensified by the development of Artificial Intelligence and the more widespread use of robots.

In the meantime, we will have a major task on our hands re-imagining and re-designing the commuting network, as well as the shape of cities, towns and villages. Less space will be devoted to offices and in the short term there will be large swathes of empty, redundant and dilapidated office space, but on the whole, markets work to sort these things out – as long as they are given the chance.

The good news is that as the demand for office space reduces, more space will become available for residential use. I am confident that the appeal of cities – with their vibrant social life, live events, sports and cultural pursuits – will endure.

Roger Bootle’s latest book, “The AI Economy: Work, Wealth and Welfare in the Robot Age” is published
by Nicholas Brealey