“Warns Against”

The Guardian reports today that

office workers in central London are spending on average 2.3 days a week in the workplace, according to a report that warns against a wholesale switch to working from home.

The thinktank Centre for Cities carried out polling of office workers in the capital and found they were spending 59% of the time in their workplace compared with pre-Covid levels.

The finding of 2.3 days sounds about right. I’ve been hearing that some people work from home all the time now or that they visit the office once a week. Others are being forced back into the office full-time, so 2.3 days sounds like an approximately correct average.

The “warns against a wholesale switch to working from home” part is only conjecture though and probably reveals the motivations behind this study. After all, anyone can “warn against” something imaginary. The study offers no evidence that working from home leads to a decline in productivity (nor, seemingly, was it designed to detect it). In fact, evidence so far suggests the opposite:

Several studies over [2021] show productivity while working remotely from home is better than working in an office setting. On average, those who work from home spend 10 minutes less a day being unproductive, work one more day a week, and are 47% more productive.

As well as scientifically-collected evidence, doesn’t it also defy belief that tired workers, fresh from the morning commute, are likely to be productive? Especially in an environment of ringing telephones and fire drills and birthday parties and all the rest of it. How could city centre offices be more productive environments than our homes? As George Orwell put it: “imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.”

Moreover, productivity is but one way to assess how well work is working. What about the quality of output? What about impact on the natural world? What about contribution to human culture?

The name of the think tank, Centre for Cities, is another hint at the motivation behind the report. According to their website, their “mission is to help the UK’s largest cities and towns realise their economic potential,” which is fine I suppose, but their vision of how to achieve this is of a certain mindset. Clearly, they want people to return to city centres in bigger numbers than they have been, and they want those people to be workers. Just as Andrew Lloyd Webber wants to trap sensitive personalities in a pit, the people at this think tank want to see people in office attire with wristwatches and Bluetooth earpieces criss-crossing glass-fronted streets and spending digital money at rubbishy franchise sandwich shops. I guess that’s just some people’s aesthetic preference, which is permissible I suppose, but it’s not science and its not progressive.

Meanwhile, I just got back from Montreal where the city has a distinct feeling of thriving. Their solution seems to have been an increased pedestrianisation of downtown areas and the expansion of proper cycle lanes.

I walked on many streets closed to cars and bustling with well-dressed people on personal missions. They were buying records, walking to and from the mountain, meeting for arty chats, painting on little easels, learning to walk on stilts, doing yoga, quietly jamming with acoustic guitars, busking, cycling and smoking at the same time, reading real books. I’m not exaggerating: I saw all of this in a single afternoon on Avenue Mont-Royal in my old neighbourhood, now closed to cars for the summer.

Imagination to get beyond “BUSINESS” is all it takes really. What I saw in Montreal is still economic activity but it’s also human and inherently worthwhile and it doesn’t involve sweating in an office while your real creative projects and the people you’d rather like to spend time with are on the other side of a tinderblock wall.


To celebrate the culture of imagination today, please take £5 off a copy of The Good Life for Wage Slaves, my survival guide for a life of work. Use coupon code CITIES at checkout until June 15th.


Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at wringham.co.uk

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