The changing nature of office-based workplaces in the 21st Century

TL:DR – They’re not like they used to be, and are a consequence of policies of successive governments as well as corporate cost-cutting pressure. But now those policies have come back to consume them, and the response to CoVID 19 has exposed them.

This post stems from this thread on Twitter. via Kim Spence-Jones.

It’s not just the firms, but also politicians that might not have clocked what has actually happened – in particular in the face of austerity.

I’m going to look at this in the context of my own experience. It won’t be an attempt to look at academic research or quantitative studies. It’s just anecdote.

Ministers don’t get small town England.

The highly-regarded Manchester-based journalist Jennifer Williams at the Manchester Evening News posted the above. The High Streets Tracker by Centre for Cities makes for interesting reading in that context – have a look at the nearest city or large town on the list near you. Some of the larger coastal towns and cities have done well recovering, while the historical university cities have struggled.

From pre-internet to with internet education

I’ve often written how my generation (born around the late 1970s/early 1980s) was the last of the ignorant. By that I mean that we did not have the internet at our fingertips so at school and college we took what was given and believed it. Oh how wrong we were!

It was the same with religion. I had to go to church every Sunday and had no one else around me in any position of authority encouraging me to question openly the institution, its practices and beliefs – let alone offering any comprehensive alternative. In my very early teens I remember wondering why we had to learn about other religions when the viewpoint from church was that it was right and all the alternatives were wrong and that was that. Then we were taught about the Holocaust & learnt very quickly what happens with such viewpoints.

On such people living lives different to the political mainstream, Former Secretary of State for Social Security and climate denying politician Peter Lilley put it like this in 1992. It’s one of the most horrific speeches ever made by a Cabinet Minister to a party conference.

Above – Peter Lilley’s list. 1992.

And when I got to Brighton for university at the end of the 1990s, I met lots of people of the like Peter Lilley described, and found them to be far kinder, nicer, more open-minded and more accepting than the institution that had dominated my childhood. Society had changed – and the Cambridge town that I left could not accept this.

From typing pools to word processors.

After finishing my A-levels I spent a year working for a bank in its back office. It was an essential life experience and also one of the most soul-destroying experiences I have ever been through. I was basically a fish out of water. This was small town small office Britain. When I started there was a real possibility that I might not go to university, and instead work my way up through the bank. As it turned out, they took on four college leavers that autumn. Two had deferred university places, two of us (myself included) did not. In the end, the two without places – myself and a guy called Richard, applied to go to university and left the organisation. The two with places decided to drop them and stay with the organisation.

It was a bit like an apprenticeship in one sense – perhaps with less training. It was mainly data inputting that we all did. What none of us knew was that this new thing called The Internet had been invented and was about to make our jobs obsolete. What would happen is that businesses importing and exporting goods would send their forms in by registered post either hand-written or typed up. We would then read the forms and type them up into the bank’s system, and send them back lots of new forms for them to sign. This exchange carried on until one side got paid and the other side got their goods, the bank taking a big cut in fees. All the Internet did was to remove the duplication at the bank’s end by getting the firms to do all the data inputting themselves.

In the summer of the Millennium I spent three months in the civil service in the Lord Chancellor’s Department. It wasn’t long before that they got rid of the old typing pools and installed an internet-accessible terminal at the end of the office. Files were all paper, and whenever anything needed to be formally written up, the civil servant doing the drafting would hand-write what they want and send it down to the typing pool for it to be typed up. Followed by the exchanges to incorporate all of the required amendments.

Open plan hot desking

Towards the end of the first decade of the present millennium, there was a move towards hot-desking as employers looked to cut costs on office rental.

Above – Puffles the Dragon Fairy hot-desking at the Government Digital Service (then part of Cabinet Office) in the early 2010s.

What struck me about how the GDS did hot-desking compared to the failed attempts I’d seen previously, was how the work stations were simply rows of desks with plug and USB sockets. All of the paper was stuck on the wall. This was also a very highly functioning unit as well – and it struck me that this is what the old Civil Service Fast Stream should have been like rather than what I experienced it as. (It has since been overhauled and is a very different programme to the one I went on in the mid-2000s).

Moving to hub-working and home-working

Around the same time, I had become familiar with freelance hub-working – where people book office space as and when they need them with all the niche facilities one might need, from printing facilities, internet access and unlimited coffee. At first it was small independent organisations that were doing this but it’s now become a corporate thing, and has become much more standardised (or bland, depending how you roll) as a result.

The decline of long term stable employment – and the social institutions built around it.

One of the reasons I left the bank was because I could not see myself working in the same place in decades to come. With hindsight we were not a happy office. Too many of the people didn’t like each other and the senior managers were unable to build an ‘esprit de corps’. It didn’t help when a new director came in just before I left and told everyone they were doing a great job, only to announce he was closing the office to centralise the operation – meaning compulsory redundancies.

As one of the last of the old-skool large employers, the civil service offices still had canteens and social clubs when I joined full time in the mid-2000s. I said to myself after my summer placement in the year 2000 that I wanted to go into a career where the people I was working with would be the people who I socialised with and would become life-long friends with. In part this was because I’d lost contact with everyone I had known during my school days and never properly settled at university, even though I came out with all of the middle class boxes ticked. (2:1 in a ‘respectable’ subject from a redbrick uni).

As a means of cutting costs further, when the Conservative-led Coalition came in, the first thing the new ministerial team did was to close the canteen and the social room in the basement of the building. Their view was that the tax payer should not be subsidising these things. What they didn’t realise was that such things were the oil in the machine, allowing people from different parts of the organisation to get to know each other. This can have significant efficiency gains. In another organisation – PwC, it goes further, with performing arts.

This piece featuring Vaughan-Alica Watts of PwC explains the impact that music and drama can have on an organisation.

“From the executive board to the guys that work in the post room, it involves people across the business. You can suddenly get post fast-tracked or something printed quickly because you know someone personally or you can ask someone a quick question about a random technical area when before you wouldn’t know anyone in that team.” Vaughan Alica-Watts.

Most people came to me with PowerPoint or spreadsheet-related problems. Not sure how I ended up being seen as the go-to person for those!

Post-pandemic office work

The botched attempt by ministers to get people to go back to working in offices has backfired badly. Had they managed the CV19 outbreak with more competence, people might have felt more willing and able to go back into said confined workplaces. Some have taken the view that it’s not for ministers to tell employers where their staff should work. Others have said the risk of a second wave is still too great. Even more – especially those without childcare arrangements and/or those with large enough homes to be able to equip it with a home office in it, have found that their productivity hasn’t fallen – for more than a few it has increased. Fewer distractions, no commute, more time in bed in the morning, less time and money spent commuting – why go in if you don’t need to?

A looming disaster for property owners – but isn’t this the market in action?

A few MPs have started speaking out about ministerial attempts to get people to get back into their offices. They’ve recognised that if they are going to be consistent with their free market principles, then this is just the market for offices and work places changing, and that those in it had to get with the change, just as with the owners of big shopping centres and airlines.

“Why don’t people want to go back into the office?”

Think about it like this – and this was my life for a number of years when I was working and also living in London.

  • There’s still a pandemic with no known cure or vaccine
  • Long commute – on a bad day four hours a day on transport
  • Public transport is crowded at rush hour – and expensive too
  • Early starts, late finishes
  • No time for anything outside of work

One of the reasons why I took voluntary redundancy is that I could feel myself burning out and also struggling with a lack of social life. My weight gain was significant in my London years too – from a slender 8stone (I was cycling, and doing dance classes 4 evenings a week prior to moving to London) to 12 stone. When I finally left the service, I slept for what felt like two months before finally getting my backside in gear for something.

But then there’s more – office work has stopped becoming social compared to decades gone by.

” We ate lunch in the canteen, we went to the pub together, there were clubs and societies and 5-a-side and a quiz league with proper prizes, and at Christmas there was a big do with presents all round and cheap booze.” By @DrSchwitters.

The thread continues:

“But we don’t do cooked lunches in the canteen now. We don’t do social clubs and 5-a-side, we don’t do on-site Christmas dos complete with presents, and basically we don’t do large, securely-employed workforces”

It’s not only that, employers – aided by ministers, have switched the cost of high skilled training in higher education onto employees through the system of fees.

We have had (as @DrSchwitters continues) :

  • privatisation
  • downsizing
  • outsourcing
  • zero-hours contracts
  • “portfolio careers”

All of these things increase the risks associated with buying a home and taking on a long term mortgage. Privatisation and outsourcing all too often results in worse terms and conditions in the longer term for lower paid workers.

Impact on property markets?

It’s a demand-side shock twice over. The first is all of those firms that have gone bust and closed completely. Those rental income streams have gone. The second one is from those firms that survive but with fewer employees, which means less office space is needed. This is compounded by those working from home. That means there will be significant pressure for office rents to come down.

The same is possible with student accommodation as @Stavvers describes above. The investment bubble has seen lots of developments of student accommodation go up in university towns and cities. It has been fuelled by Government policy on planning, with fewer restrictions (including contributions towards community infrastructure upon planning permission) on such developments. Thus profits are potentially greater. It has led to huge resentment in places like Cambridge where there is a huge shortage of social and affordable family housing. With the construction of so much privately-owned halls of residences, much of which built in anticipation of future rental income streams, what happens if the students don’t return? Whether the language schools, the cram colleges, and even the colleges & universities themselves? Note the Universities and Colleges Union on returning universities.

So ministers are looking at a potential property crash. Given the interests of those that back the governing party – the Conservatives, you can see why ministers might be more anxious than most to get people back into offices, and spending money in the sandwich bars and coffee shops. But if precautions cannot be put in place to protect public health in this pandemic, it’s understandable that people won’t be willing to go back.

The next couple of weeks – which include the schools going back, will be incredibly tense for many of us.

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