Built Environment Editor
On the evening of March 23rd the UK went into lockdown and overnight commuting to the office came to an end for anyone who could work from home.
The scale of this transformation was immediate, and workers who relied on computers found the work carried on regardless; even meetings were swiftly rescheduled to take place on platforms such as Zoom.
In non-pandemic times it would take years for any government to achieve this level of change in working practices. It would be consulted, debated, planned, trialled, and a series of task and finish groups established. Instead, due to COVID-19 we just did it, and that does of course mean it hasn’t been ideal for everyone. Working parents found at the same time as working they also had to educate their children under the same roof at the same time. This was also a particularly unsettling time, especially as the number of cases was increasing dramatically.
Yet set against this challenging backdrop the unplanned work from home experience has worked, and now increasing numbers of businesses are actively questioning the need to bring everyone back to the office. As a permanent practice businesses need to consider adopting remote working as a part of a package that also includes flexible working. This provides the maximum opportunity for both the business and its staff to benefit from a way of working that acknowledges and accommodates the demands of modern life.
For example, a well-defined policy would allow a parent to start their day by walking or cycling their children to school, (itself providing exercise, environmental and wellbeing benefits) before returning to a blissfully quiet and highly productive home working environment. For this to be the norm, forward thinking employers will place less emphasis on the hours worked and instead focus on the work achieved. Conversely, it also means that members of staff become more personally responsible for the work they undertake. At its simplest it becomes a case of trusting your team to achieve the results their roles require, without worrying about when or where they do this.
The needs of the business can’t be ignored, in fact they are paramount.
As part of developing a remote working policy, working with your team to establish how to work effectively as teams in different locations will help ensure the business needs are fully supported. This could result in teams planning set office catch-up days when they come together physically, as there is a need to. Meanwhile, other members of staff may concentrate their one-to-one client meetings into a single “out and about” day per week.
Preempting, planning and reviewing remote working practices helps to ensure their long-term success. From the outset, it helps to acknowledge that as a change in working practices it won’t be perfect from day one, and ultimately it will become a case of finding the blended approach that works best for the specific business and its people.
Working remotely also changes the way people interact with the built environment, and this itself will bring about benefits, present new opportunities and also create challenges.
The biggest and most obvious benefit b theispotential to reduce the volume of traffic on our roads. Rush hour could become a thing of the past; emissions would reduce and air quality improve. In terms of existing infrastructure at times when we need to be on the road, the roads themselves would be less congested and the need to invest in new roads negated. Not commuting is also a financial gain for individuals, and this has the potential to result in more spend in the wider economy.
Depending on location and economic performance there may still be demand for existing office space.
Although if demand for office space reduces, there will be an opportunity to divide large office spaces into smaller spaces that “downsizing” businesses will need. There is the potential to convert offices into apartments; as many office buildings are in city centre locations this would help to increase the immediate population in these urban centres, and with it help sustain business for the hospitality and retail sectors. However, care needs to be taken to ensure that in Wales we don’t allow offices to be converted into tiny studios that provide unsuitable accommodation. Instead, an emphasis should be placed on creating apartments that are liveable places where people can benefit from having everything they need on their doorstep, whilst having sufficient space in a well-designed apartment.
Spending more time at home will make the immediate neighbourhood more important to people. Taking a break from work could involve a walk to the corner shop, lunch in a local cafe, or going to buy some groceries. All of this represents opportunities for existing local businesses to attract new custom, and for new businesses to set-up to meet this new demand. An increase in local spending could offer our town centres a significant boost, and act as the catalyst for sustainable urban regeneration in Wales.
Our biggest cities, that have traditionally seen a daily influx of commuters, will be concerned at the potential and lasting decrease in footfall as a result of the increased adoption of remote working. In part, as mentioned above, increasing the number of people living in the very centre will help mitigate this challenge.
At the same time, it's worth remembering that people like and need to socialise; and after spending a week working from home, the opportunity to meet with friends and colleagues in a city centre environment may well become a treat that people look forward to. Whilst the volume of visits may go down, the spend may well increase, especially if the experience makes it worth the journey.
Transport planning takes time and often involves significant investment, whereas the shift to remote working is happening quickly. This could prove problematic if spend is being committed to deliver services where demand is going to decline.
However, if a lasting reduction in demand for public transport commuter services becomes apparent, it will open up opportunities for leisure travel services. Demand for weekend services could be encouraged for trips not just into the city but also to scenic destinations. Potentially this would help make transport services in rural communities more economically viable, whilst also attracting more spend in the rural economy.
The widespread adoption of remote working could well come to the rescue of our built environment, provided we embrace its potential to allow people to live a more sustainable life, where they have the time to walk or cycle to local shops and services. Ending much of the commute would also open up opportunities to repurpose our urban centres, and at the same time help to create much needed housing. These changes alone would help our environment, give people more time, and make it easier for them to adopt a healthier way of life. It would also unlock new opportunities for local businesses, and be the starting point to re-energise our urban centres for the future.