Concrete Jungle or Rural Idyll? The Future of the City
At the height of the pandemic, walking around the center of a city was like the set of a movie. Empty streets, shuttered shops, deserted highways: It seemed like the world had ended. Now that we begin to move towards an endgame and working patterns have altered so drastically, the question that presents itself now is: Has the world of the office, of urban living and working, in fact, come to an end?
Working from home was imposed on businesses at short notice, and many professions thought at first that it would be impractical. Their whole mental landscape was posited on the notion of employees clustering together in communal spaces for the 9-to-5 day, five days a week. But if necessity is the mother of invention, it is also a watchful stepparent of adaptation, and all but essential services soon found ways to work remotely. Technology was a large part of the answer; Zoom has blossomed, as have Microsoft Teams and other remote-working platforms.
Employers are now divided. Amazon has declared that it intends to return to an “office-centric culture as our baseline,” and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan wants “nearly all” bankers and traders back in the office to preserve working culture. At the other end of the spectrum, Twitter and Dropbox have signaled that employees can work from home permanently if they wish.
Some institutions have already chosen a direction and pursued it. Goldman Sachs is moving some of its private asset management operations away from Wall Street to West Palm Beach, Fla., following a trail blazed by other financial institutions like Virtu Financial and Blackstone Group. On the West Coast, tech firms are leaving Silicon Valley and going to places like Austin, Texas (Oracle) and Houston (Hewlett Packard). The reasons for relocation vary, but places like Miami are actively hunting for business; the mayor of Miami, Francis Suarez, has appointed a chief technology officer to provide, effectively, concierge services to companies looking for a new home.
What impact will this have on the wider urban ecosystem? The influence of large concentrations of office buildings is significant; in London’s Canary Wharf, the big financial, legal and accounting institutions like KPMG, EY, Herbert Smith and Morgan Stanley support an infrastructure of service industries which have been devastated by lockdowns. Café, bar and restaurant owners desperately need the men and women in suits to return, and return in number, if they are to have any hope of recovery.
Governments face a dilemma. To run with the dispersed, working-from-home baton would be the forward-looking gamble, and the chance to be at not just the cutting but the bleeding edge of workplace location and dynamics will tempt any risk-taking politician. A lot of major employers are only anticipating a return to the office for two or three days a week, so why not push at an open door? The technology has been proven and battle-hardened by the pandemic, and it is a model that offers all sorts of benefits in terms of childcare, reduction of passenger load on public transport and potentially quieter, more open, greener public spaces.
More likely, though, because it’s less risky, is to adapt the old ways of doing things. Anticipate occasional or less frequent occupation of offices and reinforce the benefits of lower attendance and travel by promoting flexible fares on public transport, stricter emissions targets on private cars, while preserving the livelihoods of service industries and maintaining real estate values.
How should business leaders and entrepreneurs judge these trends, and how can they navigate them successfully? For those with a technologically flexible workforce, there are huge opportunities to embrace new ways of working away from the Monday to Friday 9-to-5 (which is, remember, a vestigial trace of the Industrial Revolution). The working week can now be arranged in a way which is bespoke to your company. If you have surges and troughs of activity, create a staffing rota that supports that, rather than fitting your work around the availability of your employees.
Estimate—with a realistic and unsentimental eye—the value of in-person collaboration to your team. It will be worth something, but how much? And how much of that value can you preserve with a smaller footprint, a downsized office, a workforce that comes together en masse perhaps only once or twice a week? Again, calculate need and proceed to provision.
Cities will remain important. For setting trends in business and commerce, we will still look to the policies of the mayor of New York or London or Chicago. But their dominance is bound to wane slightly. Miami is aggressively showcasing itself to tech firms, and other cities will do the same if they are not already. This puts greater power in the hands of employers. If you can move your workforce, you are entitled to say to civic leaders, bluntly: What are you offering? Why should I come to you instead of somewhere else?
Make these your watchwords: bespoke and choice. Your post-pandemic workforce should be designed around the services you provide or the products you make, and achieving that tailor-made fit will be all the easier in a buyer’s market. Look for a place and a model that suits you best, and don’t settle for average. Carry your employees with you too, and you really have achieved a dynamism and a momentum that should see you confidently into the coming decade.