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14 July 2020

The future of offices will be decided by bosses, not workers

The debate that may ultimately matter is costs versus control.

By Stephen Bush

There’s a lively debate going on about the future of offices. The government is trying – albeit half-heartedly – to encourage people to return to them. Commentators are taking sides on whether they are good or bad, desirable or undesirable for workers.

As it happens, I am on the side of the offices. I think the benefits of office-working, particularly for people right at the start of their careers, are large and underestimated. But what much of the debate gets wrong is that the future of offices won’t be decided by workers but in boardrooms.

I think that the novel coronavirus, to the extent it does leave a lasting mark on our lives, will be in the trends it accelerates, rather than the ones it creates: it will, for instance, add to the pressure on cinemas, with more films being released via streaming immediately.

One particularly significant trend will be the rise of greater levels of home-working – something that, as I said back in April, will shift from being primarily a demand of workers to chiefly a demand of bosses. This trend was already in train, with many large businesses having offices that weren’t set up to accommodate their entire staff, operating with a “hot-desk” system or in co-working spaces. Businesses which have successfully transferred to home-working have large financial incentives to free themselves from the costs of renting and servicing large commercial properties in cities and towns, and most will do so.

People hoping otherwise should study the relentless rise of the open-plan office, which despite the fact studies consistently show they are less effective than closed offices, and that workers tend to prefer their own space, have spread throughout offices worldwide for the simple reason that they are cheap.

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One reason why strong trades unions are desirable is that they offer a countervailing pressure to the interests of capital in disputes such as this, but because workers are, I think, irretrievably divided over the issue, it will be difficult even for workplaces with high levels of trade union density to resist the move to distanced working. Within every workplace there are people, including those on the exact same career rung, with wildly different views about the desirability of home-working – making consensus, and therefore effective workplace activism, very hard to achieve. The workers divided are pretty much always defeated.

So I think, in practice, the decision will be made by company leaders. Some will decide they value intangible things about the office experience, just as some firms have resisted the trend for open-plan offices. Others will decide that the ability to control and monitor their workers afforded by being in offices outweighs the financial benefits of freeing themselves from their office buildings. But I think most will end up with significantly smaller office premises designed around meetings and events, perhaps shared with multiple other firms.

This will, of course, have immediate negative consequences for the people who work for industries set up to service the needs of office workers. I think, in the long-term, these jobs will be recreated elsewhere. The ending of many workers’ commuting costs will allow alternative lunch outlets to increase prices and quality (if I went to the sandwich shop near my flat with the frequency I bought a sandwich in Westminster, I would be destitute – but I don’t, and as a result I have a nice treat intermittently and they are open and prosperous). A generous and non-punitive welfare state will ease the pain of this transition and prevent the decline of office-working having major knock-on costs.

The government has already done some sensible things to facilitate the development of new, more local economies, from the tweaks to make it easier for restaurants to move to delivery, to the new measures to make it easier for office space to become homes. They should lean into these choices, rather than believing they can wish away the corporate incentives behind the trend towards home-working.

Otherwise, what is left for the government to do? Compel businesses to continue to keep large offices they do not wish to use open and send their employees in to eat at Pret to keep that chain open? Parking for a moment the very real reasons that level of compulsion is undesirable, it is also politically untenable – it couldn’t be enforced and would be hugely unpopular.

The reality, however, is that the future of offices is a debate being conducted by company leaders – and neither the opinion of workers, nor of the government, is going to be particularly significant