The push for “back to the office”

This tweet caught my eye at the weekend from @DiscordianKitty:

One fun thing about being a Millennial is we’ve been told repeatedly that eating out is irresponsible and if we do it we deserve to not be able to afford a house and now we’re being told not eating out is the most selfish thing we possibly could be doing how dare we

I’ve written already about the slightly odd experience of occasionally wandering back into the office, but the propaganda drive to get everyone physically back into the office is well underway, with several newspapers leading the clarion call.

Their concerns are not, I think, so much about productivity and the mental health of office workers, but about the commercial viabilities of town centres in commuter areas.

But here’s the thing. I just in the end think if you’ve driven urban commercial rents up so high that the margins are so tight businesses can’t survive a downturn for a few months it’s the fault of the landlords, not me buying less coffee.

The value of investments may go down as well as up. That applies to trying to charge huge rents on properties whose commercial viability has shifted.

The papers screaming that we should all be heading back into the office have also been cheer-leading thirty years of driving the British economy into relying on services and people buying coffee on the way into the office.

I enjoyed this Twitter thread too from @KevinCoates – highlights here:

Just because people are working from home does not mean they are less productive. Some probably are, either because of their job or their personality…But some people, maybe a lot, may be more productive at home than they are in the office. Maybe it’s because they’re not commuting a couple of hours a day, or there are fewer distractions at home, or they prefer the more flexible working hours, or there are fewer meetings

But what about the city centres? The food shops, the other businesses… the commercial property developers. Well, what we should do depends if this is a short-term, temporary, problem because of Covid or a long-term shift in how we work. If this is a long-term working pattern shift, then there are going to be a lot of people in city centre service industries that are going to be hit. Helping them financially in the short term, and longer term to transition to new jobs is what a responsible government should do.

If this is a long-term shift, should we be bailing out commercial property companies? Probably not. This is capitalism. They bet and lost. In London they’ve been betting and winning for many years. So now they lose. We shouldn’t privatise profit and socialise losses. This may be a real opportunity to move away from the London-centrism of the UK economy. We can hope anyway.

If you think I’m tetchy about this, it’s because I grew up in the north east in the 1980s. I don’t remember the Conservative government telling people that they had to burn more coal to keep the coalmines open…