Another factor in the persistence of the old office model was the problem of collective action. If a single individual wanted to work entirely from home, not only did they need to get the agreement of their employers, but to make this socially acceptable and enjoyable, there would need to be other people doing the same thing.
This is exactly what has happened during the lockdown. The consequence is that many people would now prefer to work at least one day a week from home – and some every day. Many businesses must now be asking themselves whether they need their expensive city offices.
If people chose to work more from home, then there would be less pressure on transport networks, including commuter trains and roads bringing people into city centres. And if workers don’t have to go into city centres for work, will they continue to want to go into them for entertainment? They might instead prefer to patronise venues closer to where they live.
Moreover, where people want to live will itself change, as will what people want and expect from their domestic arrangements, including the amount of space and its layout in order to make home-working more readily compatible with domestic life. There’s a big opportunity here for the construction and home improvement industries.
But if anything like a home-working revolution transpires, a critical issue facing businesses will be how to generate a feeling of togetherness among employees. Zoom is all very well, but if employees don’t meet each other regularly, how can they feel themselves to be a part of a team, rather than operating in isolation, splendid or otherwise?
Businesses commonly organise occasional social get-togethers for their staff. From being an optional nice-to-have, however, such social events will become absolutely essential for providing the glue that binds a firm together.
For some businesses, these can include discussions and seminars. But over and above this there will surely be lots of lunches and dinners, drinks sessions and possibly nights, or even weekends, away at a hotel. This surely offers a lifeline for much of the hospitality industry, which, I suspect, is going to suffer considerably from the drop in business travel. Hotel groups would need to reshape much of their real estate, but essentially there would still be a substantial market for what they provide.
What is the future for employment in such a world? In my book, I argued that robots and AI would essentially be complements to human labour, rather than substitutes for it. The demand for human labour would remain robust partly because there was one essential thing that robots and AI would never be better at doing than human beings – namely being human.