In 2019, the tidal flow of commuters into London was estimated to be over 1.1 million or 1.36 million travel hours every day: a huge and costly migration for London alone.
The Victorian logic for this assemblage was about the function of a City as a forum for pools of skilled workers and industries co-located for efficient trading of materials and product. This marketplace logic has functioned for centuries, but 6 months on from lockdown, we are swapping embarrassed sideways glances whenever a return to the office is demanded. This is because the assertion that people cannot work effectively from a remote location is blown, we’ve been doing it effectively, en masse for months.
We’ve heard the arguments about city economies, corporate esprit de corps, the value of informal meetings, serendipitous encounters versus the threats of mass transit travel, crowded office spaces and after work drinks but a COVID-only focus is blinkered. These decisions collide with a looming Brexit and the growing reality of a climate crisis. Smart Policymaking is needed so as not to drive us off a cliff whilst avoiding a ditch.
The $64,000 question is how can we stay safe and harness what we learnt in lockdown to make us more able to cope with EU exit and to go further towards a sustainable 21st century economy?
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a simple framework for what we need to aim for. The post-pandemic digital work culture is a key factor in at least 4 of them. The impact of commuting on health, the emissions arising from mass travel, the quality of life in urban areas geared to support day-time migrants and the finite resources diverted to enable centralised businesses often displacing poorer workers from prime dwelling areas.
While the marketplace logic still applies, a digital world no longer makes physical co-location essential. Pools of workers can be engaged via the web for recruitment, consultation, training and employment. Trading no longer requires a physical location in a world of e-commerce except for some specific goods and services. Things can be quite different.
Emerging economics may require a spectrum of new operating models and every organisation will need to find its own blend with some activities always reliant on attendance, others with little need to get together. Teams can gather in different environments to mentor, train and bond. For some it will be easy, others will struggle. Systems to enable and support staff in a virtual corporate environment for dispersed people.
The Pandemic may have already supplied some important first steps.
Rapid business evolution is necessary to address ongoing climate, social and economic gamechangers. For those who say it’s too hard; in 6 months we adapted to lockdown with many innovative business models surfacing including staff working from home or other shared local workspaces. Those that say is too soon, 17 of the hottest years on record since 2000 indicates the climate crisis is already here, and our EU trading world ends in three months.
It may be scary but the benefits are sizeable. They range from the ability to save costs with a much smaller corporate estate, to reduced travel and subsistence expenses, less staff burnout and the social and bio benefits arising from cleaner air and more functional local communities.
It is wrong to think the age of travel is dead, but an end to the routine commute, especially between regional conurbations, must be seriously considered. How will your organisation adapt to survive and thrive? What must you retain to function and deliver value? How might this impact customer experiences? Are your people ready for unsettling change, do you have the systems you need? How will you manage your business to maintain its coherence, retain valuable staff, maintain necessary controls, and measure performance?
For those who refuse to consider change, who lock their interests in old thinking, storms are coming. Just ask any retailer what happens if you ignore the weather.