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Local, Global and a Lot Less Metro

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I don’t think any of us miss the commute. We certainly don’t.

Squeezing yourself into a cramped tube/tram/train/bus at peak time, avoiding eye contact while flipping between the headlines, your Slack feed, and Instagram: it’s not a particularly inspiring way to spend two hours of your day.

The pandemic has been devastating at practically every conceivable level, but it has given us a chance to re-evaluate the relationship between ‘place’ and ‘work’.

Without a doubt, had society found itself in this situation ten years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible to pull the office shutter down then continue ‘business as usual’ without significant operational disruption. Collaborative production tools and video calls were still in their infancy back then. Technology, as it often is, has been a saviour.

For those fortunate enough to work from home, many have become quite comfortable with the flexibility this provides. Company leaders who might have previously thought ‘working from home’ was a euphemism for ‘watching Loose Women while still in your PJs’, have had no option but to place trust in their staff. Hard for some, for sure.

Overnight, and after many years of slow adoption, video calls became ‘the next best thing’ to meeting people in the real world. And though we’ve all had our Professor Robert Kelly moment — where kids or pets hijack a call at a critical point in the discussion — few of us that can ignore the transformative effect this will have on our notion of the work ‘place’.

Distance Disappears. Opportunities Appear.

The ‘place’ we work has changed, for sure, whether that’s temporary, permanent — or, more likely — somewhere in-between. But I’d argue that the significant shift in nimble businesses right now is in thinking about how the ‘places’ we work with are also up for grabs.

Pre-pandemic, the idea of sitting at home in Manchester, working on a project with a client based in NYC and a senior team in the Balearics, wouldn’t have felt quite as natural as it does now. But carefully scheduled Google Meets and shared documents make the whole thing as seamless as working with a client in the next postcode area, perhaps more so.

Whilst writing this, I had a call with an old friend. Pre-pandemic they were offered a high-profile role with a great new agency. The catch: relocation from the North West of the UK to London was a pre-requisite. A no-go, understandably. But as lockdown eased, the same agency got back in touch, and offered them the job, with no requirement to up-sticks.

Geography is no longer a barrier to opportunities and markets. Connectivity, plus the disappearance of distance, mean the right skills and knowledge for a project can be called upon from anywhere in the world. We’re working locally, but our opportunities have become global.

We might not be able to network locally for some time. Can you imagine trying to build a new commercial connection with someone in the real world right now? The already awkward ‘first hand-shake’ becomes a transmission hotspot, and you’re going to have to quarantine new business cards for 48 hours before taking them out of your wallet. And small talk at two metres? Not going to work, is it?

But, right now is the exact time to reconnect with people you’ve not spoken to for a while. There’s no geographical barrier, and no need to play ping-pong with meeting dates and venues; conversations can happen in an instant. With new discussions come new ideas, new opportunities. Locked down, and working mainly from their homes, there’s a degree of catharsis to be gained, too.

Are We Bored, in the City?

So what of the city? The growth of online shopping had already ravaged demand for retail space, how will things look in our city centres as other employers down-size their physical footprint?

There’s little doubt that people need places to come together (safely), but companies will have to make a judgement on the ongoing viability of larger offices now that Covid has demonstrated the efficiencies of working from anywhere. Smarter spaces will be required, places that facilitate the best in collaboration, rather than merely offering a different location to connect to the cloud from. It’s a chance for developers, interior designers, and indeed, employers to re-define the ‘work’ place to give staff a compelling reason to visit.

Understandably, we are already seeing a decline in trade from ancillary services that support our experience of working in city centres. It’s telling that office favourite Pret A Manger is laying off a third of its workforce, and trialling localised ‘dark’ kitchens that’ll allow them to go direct to workers wherever they feel peckish for a Posh Cheddar & Pickle. Bars, cafes and restaurants in our cities fared less well than their suburban counterparts under the government-backed Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

In Love With Local Again

It’s difficult to be positive in the midst of our current situation, but we’re increasingly falling in love with ‘local’ again, and that’s got to be good.

Our community high streets have taken a beating over the last 20 years, with out-of-town stores depleting retail footfall, and bland casual dining chain restaurants forcing out independent eateries. As we’re spending more time at home, we’ll invest more of our time and cash in the places that surround us. Workspace providers might also seize the moment, offering localised smart spaces for people to come together and collaborate.

So Is That Where We Should Be Heading

Now we’ve had a taste of home-working, and had time to re-connect with our local community, few of us are willing to go back to full-time work bound in an office. We’ve reclaimed that time stuck in the commute, and spent it living ‘more’. We’ve realised that we can actually be productive at home, staying local, whilst connecting globally. As we adjust to these changes, we’ll generate greater revenues from international opportunities, whilst spending more with businesses on our doorstep.

Could we see a return to having thriving local economies, neglected for so long in the relentless pursuit for the growth of our city centres? Time will tell.

Co Contributor – Phil Birchenall
Image – Dan Burton @unsplash