Written in April 2020….at the start of the first lockdown
Given recent events associated with Corona Virus, not least a complete transformation in travel patterns, I wanted to offer some thoughts on mobility and working from home, or not…
But firstly, a nod of appreciation to all those working in our health services, essential workers, delivery people, carers, etc. What I do really is pretty meaningless at the current time.
I’d also like to note, that politicians are generally thanked for nothing and blamed for everything. However, the vast majority of politicians do their best – as do their officials and officers at all levels of government. In this unprecedented crisis I am actually pretty impressed by a lot of what I am seeing in terms of “throwing away the rule” book to get things done. Its not perfect…but I am not sure it could ever be.
Nonetheless, it’s also acceptable and necessary to challenge and scrutinise, people need to be held to account. However, throwing around armchair opinions on matters from PCR DNA testing and epidemiology to fiscal measures is not helping in my view. I want us to give more space to the experts with a role in addressing the healthcare and operational challenges we are all collectively facing.
Yes, there have been some serious issues and questions raised; at the right time we can have a reckoning. We also need to ensure that the current outpouring of thanks & gratitude to key workers and NHS staff (including foreign workers, yes skilled foreign workers risking their lives to help us!), manifests itself in a realisation of how “undervalued” many have become, and that this flows through into our politics & policy….especially as regards our tax, immigration & welfare systems.
I have penned some thoughts on tax in relation to our environmental challenges[i] (more to follow) but the economic and environmental challenges we face and, not least, a need to address issues associated with post-industrial decline, requires a complete overhaul of our fiscal systems which are rooted and still essentially designed around early 20th Century methods of production and mass employment. Changes to industry/market regulation, and enforcement will come a close second.
In saying that, I don’t, as some “end of the world armchair economist” would have it, believe that our economic system or even the market economy will collapse or is rendered obsolete. It does though require a very significant overhaul, in particular a vital need to ensure that all the external environmental and societal costs of many of our activities are in future, more fairly and equitably identified and attributed.
I also think the relationship between the constituent countries of the UK is another question we will have to revisit. But that is for later.
So, we are all going to be working from Home?
The current crisis and consequential increase in home working (for those that can), has presented the possibility of much more remote working and new working practices. We have the potential to create a new work future. Without Office 365, Skype, Teams, Zoom, and available broadband (for most not all!) etc, the current working from home phenomena would be almost impossible. Had this crisis occurred even just 10 years ago, I am not sure we would be anywhere as effective as we have been in 2020?
So yes, it is clear, we can work more remotely. I defer to this piece by Ceri Davies[ii] which sets out a potential new remote working future. Even the AA, is now questioning the wisdom of more road building[iii] and making the case for more home working!
I also note we covered the role of shared workspaces like Indycube in the Cardiff Capital Region economy in the, “Metro Impact Study[iv]” in 2013! It has been my assertion for several years that we do need a better balance as part of a more differentiated and stratified economic development strategy for the region. As others have argued more eloquently than me, we now have an opportunity to do some things quite differently.
However, aside from the more balanced propositions proffered, some are jumping to what I view as an extreme position in that the vast majority of us can work at home all the time. I am not so sure.
My core assertion is that current emergency has demonstrated that we now know that we can work from home, but that most of us will not want to do so all the time!
So, I would caution a more measured analysis of the benefits (especially job retention, productivity and access to labour) and impacts, let me explain.
Firstly, yes people are managing to work from home using Zoom, MS Teams, etc to communicate. However, I would argue that working with colleagues on-line and via video conference (VC) is much easier given we have already developed social relationships with colleagues whilst in the workplace. How easy would it be to function on VC in a “room” full of strangers? How will the current arrangements be working in 12 months when the novelty has worn off? How do you introduce new employees to such a virtual “workplace” when they have little or no opportunity to develop their wider social work network? I’m not saying it can’t be done…. it’s just maybe not as easy as we think.
For example, what happens when we need to work collectively to solve complex and/or emotional problems. In doing so we often find the subtleties of team working and exchange of ideas and information happens in many more uncontrolled ways, including in “out of office” and in social situations, and in ways that are difficult to replicate on a VC. So, the perceived productivity gains from less time commuting maybe offset by the longer-term impact on productivity associated with the loss of informal and more social staff interactions and especially group collective creativity and problem solving.
There is also the pull of places, of cities, of urban life. I worked in London from my mid-twenties to my mid-thirties. I enjoyed the buzz of life in the centre of London, of the busy tubes, of the after work socialising, of works football, of pub darts….of discussing and solving work problems in a social and less formal settings outside the office (so the pub, café, restaurant, etc). This is often an important consideration for younger people when looking for employment.
A little later in my late thirties, as a Management Consultant working with the PA Consulting Group, I worked supporting BP’s Global Web Hosting Leadership team (still one of the most challenging and enjoyable assignments I ever had). Their teams, kit, facilities, suppliers, were dotted all over the world. We did a lot, even 20 years ago, with tele-conferencing and using simple data sharing to walk through presentations, etc.
My recollection was that we found these remote meetings worked pretty well when we were just “box ticking”, discussing non-contentious issues, business as usual stuff. However, we found it much harder to solve difficult organisational, procurement and management problems over a phone or VC. So, every month or so, we had to meet for 2 or 3 days to go through the difficult stuff…sometimes in London, sometimes in US. This was unavoidable and many of the problems we addressed we dealt with not just “in the office” but in the social interactions that also took place outside of the office.
I think today we are faced with the same challenges. Creativity and problem solving is much better and more effective face to face and often in social environments wrapped around formal work interactions. You can’t do that working from home 100%.
What about recruitment and job retention. What would it be like to start you first day at work on a VC…? Yes, I know some do that…but all of us, all the time? The longer term implications for companies issuing a new starter with a laptop and a O365 account to work 100% of the time remotely is not clear, but I don’t think in the majority of cases that will work, especially for a “younger person” and may have a negative impact on both recruitment and retention given the more limited social benefits of such work.
We also know that many people want to keep home and work life separate. I like my blended existence where I spread my work across seven days, 24/7, and at different locations, including at home. That doesn’t suit everyone, so we shouldn’t force it.
Post Script: Its also been pointed out to me (thanks Lee!) that many people are employed in roles or professions that can’t be undertaken at home…in fact probably most of us. For example retail, hospitality, tourism, manufacturing, energy, etc. In general, its only desk based office jobs that can be reconfigured for remote or home working. However, even those jobs will be hard to do if you live in a shared house or have limited space and have to perch on the end of your bed. Even in a shared workspace VC calls are difficult given background noise and disturbance.
Underpinning all this is the reality that humans are a social species, we like meeting, interacting, forming teams, competing, we are more creative and better able to solve problem collectively and in face to face and often informal situations. But yes, we dont need to be face to face all the time…. there may be a better more balanced approach?
A possible Future
So, I think there is a sensible future. Something that offers a balance of Office HQ, home and local workspace working. Perhaps a now smaller main HQ office that we attend for say 40~60% of the time; more local shared workspaces we attend 20~30% and home working 20~30%…or whatever balance works. It’s the choice and flexibility that is important.
Post script; as I set out in other blogs re TOD, etc, the parallel need to relocate our environmentally damaging out of town offices, shops, leisure and public services, etc back to town and city centres will more than offset the reduction in the space required resulting from flexible working for those businesses, etc already based on our town and city centres. As I set out in my Wales blog, it is the phenomenon of car based and out of town development that I believe has had the most damaging impact on local economies and especially local town and community high streets all across south Wales (and not commuting to Cardiff…or anywhere in fact, which many argue!)
This approach has implications….
Firstly, we still need good, high quality and accessible city and town centre offices located near public transport that still needs to be enhanced. The requirement for such space could be 20/30% lower than today. However, the same accessibility requirements for access to skilled employees that we face today will still apply in future…. albeit with more flexibility.
We also then need to see more “Indycube” type arrangements in more of our smaller towns and communities to provide the option of local workspaces outside of the home, but more local to it and as others have argued this can help local and foundational economies.
Converting the better allocation of work across most employees into a more even demand profile on our transport system, can help address one the biggest issues we face in supporting and subsidising public transport. That is the stark reality that we have to design public transport services and infrastructure to support demand that is generally in one direction for 2-3 hours twice a day….often much of the rest of the week we are moving around fresh air!
Figure 1 Senedd Research, Commuting mode share in Wales 2017
I also think we need to us the opportunity to reduce our overall demand from movement not to reduce public transport, but reduce car use. Remember in Wales, on average 80% of us commute in cars and only 10% or so using public transport and another 10% Active Travel Figure 1 . The figures are higher for public transport in urban areas; but even the valley lines only carry about 13% of demand into Cardiff. Most people are in their cars!
So, we still need much more public transport, even if overall demand for movement can be reduced by say 20% (which I sense might be possible). The same can’t be said of roads and car use, which is by far the most environmentally damaging form of mobility….even if all electric Figure 2 Figure 3. So, we need to focus, for environmental reasons, on reducing car usage. We need far fewer cars.
Figure 2 Emissions breakdown by Mode 2016 (EU)
Figure 3 Range of CO2 emission by vehicle and fuel types (2014) EU
Worth a look my earlier Car blog[v] and a recent presentation I gave in Bielefeld at a Smart Mobility Symposium[vi]. Post script: my March 2021 blog on the issue of cars and climate change.
If we look at the CCR as an example, there are about 740k working residents in the region[vii]. Of these, 260k work in Cardiff, a net 25k leave the region for work, with over 450k working outside Cardiff (not everyone works in Cardiff!). Nonetheless 100k people commute into Cardiff (by far the highest in the region), 35k into Newport with about 100k commuting into the other 8 local authorities. The issue we face is not these absolute numbers, but the fact that most (not all) of the commuting movement occurs in 2 to 3-hour periods twice a day, every day, 5 days a week! …and 70~80% of that movement by car! And to note (following my post script above) not all of those jobs can be undertaken remotely or at home!
We now can also see what roads with fewer cars and fewer dangerous emissions does for our environment. It’s safer and clear…in my now very seldom forays outside the house, the difference is stark. We need to try and lock in much less car use in future. This means allocating more space to Active Travel and Public Transport.
If we can encourage some home working, some local workplace working more public transport and then a more even demand on our transport infrastructure, we can deliver significant environmental, societal, economic and affordability benefits! Someone else can to the maths!
So, to Policy
In terms of policy what will be required to enable this…
We can radically change our working practices to achieve a better balance of work, local workspace, home working (as noted earlier – this is only possible for certain jobs and professions – you can’t be a barista from your front room!). This should flow through to fiscal and rateable measures and incentives to achieve it; the need to re-boot our economy will also demand us, in my view, to completely review our fiscal systems. For example, there could be tax and or rateable incentives to only provide office spaces for say 70 to 80% of your staff? This will help encourage the market for local workspaces and more home working?
Any fiscal measures in Wales should be linked to interventions that support regeneration and more stratified economic development across the whole of SE Wales (as we set out in the Metro Impact Study). In policy terms we have to find a way to combine more traditional economic development initiatives with measures that can support local economies. I have penned a few words on this subject[viii] and its relationship to Metro in the last few years[ix] as well as implication for our planning system[x].
The Public Sector needs to lead and relocate all of its office based activities and functions, in future smaller footprint premises, to city and town centres and away from car-based offices and out of town business parks. It could also help by enabling those employees who can and want to work at home say a day or two a week, to do so and when they do travel to an office, to stagger journey times; they can also reduce the amount of parking space provided for staff (sorry!).
I think this crisis also provides space for a more “define and provide” means of transport planning (rather than traditional “predict and provide”) with supporting fiscal and other incentives and disincentives, to achieve the outcomes we want.
This means we must be far more prescriptive in setting out desired demand profiles for mobility. The opportunity is not just to reduce overall levels of movement but to increase public transport and reduce car use and dependency. The flexible working, we will encourage can also allow us to reduce the “peakiness” of demand so we can operate our public transport systems more efficiently.
On cars and roads, this also means road use charging (yes it does!). Firstly, to begin to more fairly apportion the full external costs of car use to the user Figure 4 , and secondly to help address some of the post corona fiscal challenges and to help fund new public transport infrastructure. My blog on Cardiff’s Transport White Paper[xi] covered the former points. If you want a real expert view then look at the work of Todd Littman; the executive summary of Transport Costs and Benefits by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute is a good place to start[xii].
Figure 4 External costs of car use are about 35% of the total
To complement we still need much more public transport (once we are through the current crisis) and active travel, so we should see a further decrease in capital allocated to major new road schemes with an increase in both revenues and capital funding directed to rail, bus, walking and cycling.
Rather than predict our work and transport future…lets define it and build it.
What’s not to like!
One thing we also need to be cognisant of is the impact of AI…. this will throw many of our/my assumptions out of the window, especially as regard work, employment, etc in the next 10-20 years. For example, the point I was making above re: the need for social interactions to help collective problem solving; well it’s entirely possible that this is an activity that in future could be undertaken more and more by AI.
What the current crisis is telling us, is that the most valuable people in our society are those that provide direct human interactions (healthcare workers, carers, front of house, musicians, bar staff, barristers, social work, etc) …these are roles that AI cannot easily replicate (although it could support) and which today are in the more precarious part of our economy. I tried to make that point in a 2017 blog,” Hand Made in Ebbw Vale”[xiv] .
So, I caveat my assertions above with a blunt view that our entire economy may well be re-crafted whether we like it or not…Corona virus is just the catalyst that brings forward changes that are inevitable.