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9:52am on Tuesday, 2nd March, 2021:
I read a BBC news article yesterday in which a company executive states that many people are "fatigued" as a result of working at home and they miss office and city-centre life. The company executive in question is head of strategy at Canary Wharf group, which manages Britain's biggest office and retail complex.
The article can therefore be summarised as "Man whose prosperity depends on people not working from home predicts people will not work from home when lockdown ends". The subtext is that he thinks they will want to continue working from home and is worried they won't. We don't hear the bosses of telecommunications companies saying that people dislike commuting and will want to work from home following lockdown, because it's obvious that large swathes of the office-working population do think that way.
We're seeing similar predictions of doom from other large organisations that rely on a return to the ways of the past following lockdown. Train companies are warning that ticket prices will have to rise if people don't go back to working in city centres. They say this because rising ticket prices are regarded as A Bad Thing. They are indeed A Bad Thing for those who use the trains, but for those who don't they're irrelevant. "If you don't use the trains you'll have to pay more for your ticket" is like saying "if you don't employ servants you'll have to pay your servants more". Tra la la, so what?
There are other calls to return to the Olde Wayes that are not along the lines of attempting to salvage a business model that has been exposed as irrelevant by home working, though. Four days ago, another BBC news article in which the boss of Goldman Sachs called working from home an aberration that doesn't suit the culture of the organisation. This would suggest that the company's culture is rather more authoritarian than that of many other companies in the finance industry, although the news report cites innovation, collaboration and apprenticeship as being key — as if you can't get all three of those over Zoom. I suppose an argument could be made that an apprentice would benefit from working closely with the person with whom they're apprenticed, but how many employees of Goldman Sachs have an apprentice?
It's not actually clear why a company that has been ticking along just fine with only 10% of its staff in the office would want to bring the other 90% in after lockdown ends, other than for reasons of justifying the existence of managers. Still, if that's what they want. What will happen is that companies that offer better working conditions will attract the younger, more dynamic staff, and the dinosaurs will be left to find their route to extinction. For a financial company, maybe 10% of their staff do need to be in the office, but the rest will be able to work quite happily from home and only show up on occasion.
For universities, remote teaching works just fine. If someone wants a quality degree and they can get one from MIT remotely, that's what they'll do. Sure, there are problems marking assignments if you have half a million students on your books, but those are tractable. With many students not bothering to show up to lectures, it's not as if they all feel they need to be there anyway.
Universities aren't just about degrees, though. They're about leaving home, becoming independent and growing up. Universities make money from renting out rooms and selling services to students, not just from flogging them an education. Some subjects also have specialised equipment (such as chemistry laboratories) or have other practical requirements that can't be addressed remotely (such as physiotheraphy). This can also impact research. I expect there will be some online-only universities in the world of new normal, but 18-year-olds will nevertheless still want to live away from home and the campus universities will carry on (although we may lose a few).
Personally, I rather like working from home. Yesterday, a student cancelled a supervisory meeting less than five minutes before it started. Students regularly did this for face-to-face meetings, of course, but the difference is that yesterday I only had to close a Zoom window, whereas in times past that missed meeting would have cost me the morning for a fruitless visit to campus. Likewise, an hour-long meeting in London is now an hour-long meeting from home, not pretty well a whole day gone.
Bonus: I can write posts like this one while at a Zoom meeting and people think I'm taking notes. Ahem.
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