Yesterday, I practically skipped my way along Edinburgh’s George Street en route to a visit to the office. Having also recently done some hard time in quarantine following a badly-timed trip to the Spanish Costas (…don’t ask), I was glad for the human interaction of a passer-by, a mental break from my home office, and just a hint of normality.
To my surprise, the streets were empty. No awkward smile to the person you don’t-quite-recognise as a fellow commuter, no clip clop of brogues and heels, and certainly no normality.
It brought home government’s dilemma, spread across the weekend papers, to get our cities and offices moving again, balanced against the need to keep infection rates down. According to official UK figures published in The Timesyesterday, trains carried only 28% of their normal passenger loads last week, whilst – when asked by Morgan Stanley at the end of July on their return to work – only 34% of UK workers said they had gone back. Considering that big beasts including Google, Facebook and Royal Bank of Scotland have asked staff to ‘WFH’ until at least 2021, the prospect for the swift return of bustling cities is rather muted.
Cue, then, a reversal of a few of those utopian dreams we held at the start of lockdown amid a quiet panic in the halls of the Treasury. Sack those hopes of less dense urban centres, greater mixed use of domestic and commercial real estate, and democratised neighbourhoods – we want you to buy Pret coffees and put up with the stress of commutes, goddammit!
The debate in the UK strikes me as overly polarised. As Alice Crossley writes in Reaction, a one-size-fits-all approach, or office vs home-based working, is never going to work – ’Generation Z’ cannot come to stand for ‘generation Zoom’. Giving citizens choice (and, so it figures, workers) should be the ambition of any organisation or government in a liberal democracy.
Besides, Covid-19 hasn’t changed the fundamentals: according to the UN, 68% of the world’s population are projected to live in cities by 2050 (55% today) and the factors that attract new blood to their streets – culture, social scenes, and hopes of career advancement – have yet to be presented with an alternative locale that can facilitate them to the same degree of effectiveness.
It might be a bland conclusion but, from this point in the pandemic, the public seem to be crying out for a future of working that is mixed and a discourse acknowledging that – being comfortable with multiple options is what choice is all about, after all. This means activity that ensures economic activity, giving renewed meaning and value to office-based meetings, but not at the cost of freedoms that make workers happier, healthier and, ultimately, more productive.