Friday, 28 August 2020

Is Boris Johnson a secret Luddite?

One of the consequences of the pandemic has been that businesses have come to realise that, with modern technology and a degree of trust, many people can work from home at least as effectively – and often more effectively – as they can in a city centre office. It’s not universal, of course; some staff still need to attend offices at least some of the time, but overall, there are benefits for both staff and businesses in a more flexible approach. It seems likely that a new pattern has been established which will only be partly reversed as the pandemic eases. There are, though, some other side-effects of the switch. Retail and hospitality businesses in town centres saw a drastic reduction in custom during the lockdown, and a long term reduction in the numbers of staff working in city centres on any one day is likely to be terminal for some of those businesses.
Government ministers have been increasingly pleading with people to return to offices, and with businesses to insist that their staff should do so, with hints being dropped that businesses could sack staff who don’t return to their normal place of work, a hint which the CBI has quite rightly been quick to reject. As part of the government campaign, one former minister, Damien Green, has said that more jobs are at risk if people do not return to work, adding that a lot of businesses and jobs "that depend on big city activity... will just die." I can’t deny the truth of that, but the question which we need to ask is whether people should continue commuting to and from offices when that has become an outdated mode of working simply to support businesses which have become otherwise unviable as a result of changes in technology and working practices.
I seem to remember the Tories giving very short shrift to the idea that industries such as mining should continue even if coal could be sourced more cheaply from abroad because of all the people and businesses which depended on those industries, but I suppose that mines were a long way away from the everyday experience of any London-based minister. It is, though, a central tenet of capitalism that innovation leads to change, and that change means that some businesses fail whilst others are formed doing new things to take their place. Whilst I’m not personally a big fan of allowing that process to be governed entirely by the market rather than managed in the interests of working people, it’s rather strange to see a Conservative government arguing against the principle itself, and demanding that people continue unnecessary commuting in order to prevent innovation from impacting jobs. It’s almost as though a Johnson premiership has revealed a long-hidden Luddite streak in the Conservative Party.


dafis said...

Only months ago there was huge wailing about all those commuters spending hours on the road or in crowded rail carriages, buses, wheelbarrows etc particularly those who had to get into London every day. One of the few benefits of Covid is that it accelerated the move towards remote or home working enabling people to be a damn sight more efficient without having to sit or stand next to some smelly bloke for ages twice a day 5 days a week.

So why the fuss about getting people back to offices ? Apparently there is widespread concern about the future prospects for inner city pubs, vendors of fast food etc These are the fuckers who tend to employ people on minimum wages, zero or short hour contracts and generally not known as places where people spend a lifetime working out of choice.

Perhaps the real story lies in the imminent collapse of inner city business property values which will send corporate landlords into a debt laden tizzy. These same creeps often feature on Tory donor lists and continue to be seen bending planning rules while dining with high ranking politicians and officials. Of course Boris &Co would never let their mates sink so we can expect a turning of the screw, fairly benign at first but getting nastier with passing of time.

Spirit of BME said...

I was working from home for global company some 25 years ago, but the rule was that I had to attend the office any two days of the working week.
I can see the immediate advantage of reducing your floor space and giving office block landlords heart failure- it could not happen to a nicer bunch of people, after the extortion of the past.
However, companies will have to deal with another problem, namely can humans go against their herd instinct and be as efficient in dealing with issues at a distance.
While we have all dealt with financial capital ,the second capital is `emotional capital` of the company ,in short, will the inter- reaction be as efficient and speedy as working together in a herd .Or, will the buy-in to the aims and values of the operation be as binding.
Consultants over the last decades have been pointing out to Boards (yours truly among them) that recognising this capital is essential to a successful company.
I think after a certain amount of time this issue will emerge as the quality and speed of decisions deteriorate and our herd requirements will be recognised.

John Dixon said...


Perhaps. But even if what you say is true, it does not follow that a full time (5 days per week) return to an office environment for all staff is the only way of meeting that requirement, nor does it follow that the timing of that return should be set by the needs of retail and hospitality businesses serving those employees, let alone by an arbitrary timetable set by government.

I suspect that many businesses have found over recent months that they can be effective (in the short term at least) without having the full complement of staff permanently present, and many employees have found that a different sort of work-life balance is possible. Of course businesses will (and should) monitor the situation to ensure that they don't lose out too much in the ways you describe, but the sensible and innovative business leaders will be looking to see how they can develop different models which benefit all concerned rather than simply follow Johnson's simplistic call for everyone to get back to the old normal. And the result of that will be that some of the 'ancillary' jobs supporting the old model will be innovated out of existence. That change can either be managed and planned for to cushion the shock, or the government can pretend that it isn't happening. The latter seems to be the default mode at present.