Nearly a week has passed since the Prime Minister took the unprecedented step of advising us all to work from home wherever possible, in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The government has urged those of us who live and work in London to pay particular attention to this advice, since the capital is fast becoming the UK’s Lombardy — the heart of the outbreak — with infection rates accelerating much more quickly than the rest of the country.
The results were swift and dramatic. Within days, use of public transport had plummeted. The number of Tube journeys was sliced in half, and 40 per cent fewer people were using London buses. This represents an enormous number of Londoners, many of whom will continue doing their jobs from home.
This seamless transition from office to home raises a question about the structure of our professional lives. For many people, working from home is out of the question because of the nature of their jobs. But for thousands upon thousands of British workers, an internet connection is all they need to continue working as normal. Connect to Wi-Fi and you can work from anywhere. So why were we not all doing this to begin with?
Living in London is extremely expensive. Commuting into work every day is costly and time consuming, not to mention a colossal burden on the environment. On the other hand, when working from home, you can manage your own hours and attend meetings in your fluffiest pyjamas. What’s not to love?
From the point of view of the employer, having more employees who work from home brings huge and immediate benefits. For one thing, it reduces the need to maintain large, expensive office spaces. Huge sums could be saved relatively easily by inviting employees to work remotely — from home, or a café, or a playground, or anywhere else that might take their fancy.
Some companies have realised this. HuffPost UK, for example, has employees based in Preston, Bristol and even New York City. This has allowed it to transition with ease into a company where all can work from home.
Why aren’t more companies doing this? Why do we continue to traipse into offices every morning, only to work on a computer all day and then traipse back home again in the evening, when we could make our lives so much more efficient?
If more companies follow in HuffPost UK’s footsteps, a great deal of “levelling up” might happen without any state intervention at all, as businesses realise that they are now free to hire people from outside the M25 at no additional cost. Employers could cast their net for prospective employees considerably more widely,
The additional incentive of remote working would grab the attention of many people who would never normally have looked at those job applications. This works in everybody’s interests.
Some employers, such as Channel 4, have tried to do their bit to “level up” the country by moving out of London, in their case to Leeds. Others, like the BBC, have tried to focus more on the north and the midlands, without actually moving there.
These kinds of decisions, while undoubtedly well-intended, can often be counter-productive. Anecdotal accounts tell of guests on BBC programmes having to travel, along with the host, from London to a studio in Salford, only to come back to their homes in London again afterwards.
Unlike remote working, that kind of location diversification helps nobody. And it would be completely unnecessary if employers would simply hire people who lived in their desired locations, rather than transplanting their existing London employees.
If it were to become mainstream for employees to work from home, the benefits of employment would spread across the country. It would make HS2 seem like an answer to a problem of the past. The technology for remote working has existed for a very long time. It should not have taken a global health disaster to draw our attention to its potential.
The inevitable conclusion, then, is that we would be greatly helping the economy if we all worked from home. So long as the government keeps its promises on fast broadband in far-flung places, there ought to be no reason why you can’t take your conference calls on the edge of a loch in the Scottish highlands.