They shouldn’t rejoice too soon. When pushed to its logical conclusion, the working from home phenomenon has the potential to annihilate the middle class’s vice-like grip on the best jobs. Their bid to commute less will cost the jobs of hundreds of thousands of support staff, sandwich shop assistants, security guards and public transport workers. But they, it turns out, will have the last laugh.
Covid shows that proximity needn’t matter as much. That is great for wealthy commuters in the short term, allowing them to relocate from £1.5 million shoeboxes in Battersea to mansions in Bromsgrove. But if workers can be anywhere, why limit oneself to the UK?
If London-based employers can hire people who live in Newcastle, Manchester or Sheffield, why not Australia, Bangalore or Poland? If workers no longer need to sit cheek-by-jowl in central office locations all of the time, legal and immigration barriers to recruiting foreign workers fall away. It becomes easier to employ Romanian-based IT staff rather than UK-based developers, even when the costs of occasional Ryanair flights and Travelodge stays to the office are accounted for.
This will spectacularly derail the middle-class gravy train. Until now, upper-middle-class professionals had remained shielded from one aspect of globalisation – production and jobs transferred to cheaper, lower-pay locations – while enjoying another – earning more by selling globally. This explains why City wages have shot up, while those of unskilled people have fallen. Working from home means that the great protective barrier cossetting office workers has been ripped away.
Suddenly, every office worker is competing with every other office worker in the world, at least those who speak adequate English. The outsourcing of support staff was an early sign of things to come. The CEBR calculates that the post-virus equilibrium will mean 25-30 per cent of the workforce working from home on any one day, compared with 11.9 per cent in 2019. But where, and in which country, will “home” be? Millions more jobs have become exportable.
In the short term, it’s lower-paid workers who will lose: Shore Capital estimates that up to a quarter of the time office workers were based in urban centres will now be spent in suburbs, meaning more home cooking and a 20-30 per cent decline in restaurants. But having a job that must be based in Britain will become an advantage. This is good for surgeons and plumbers, but not for bankers, HR personnel or architects.