September 2, 2020

The cubicle drones are revolting. Having been encouraged to work from home during lockdown, the hordes who packed the pre-coronavirus commuter trains are dragging their heels about returning to work. And the official reaction to this phenomenon betrays how thin our Government’s commitment really is to the much-vaunted ‘levelling’ agenda.

Working from home has not all been idyllic, of course. Not everyone has a spare room to use as office space, or a garden where the kids can let off steam. The burden of trying to homeschool fractious children while remote working has disproportionately fallen on mothers, with many risking their jobs by requesting furlough in order to cope. There’s been sketchy internet, a 40% spike in divorce enquiries and skyrocketing domestic violence.

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No doubt those for whom the workplace is sanctuary, social life and home from home have rushed to return to its embrace. But given that one early summer survey showed that 90% of workers would rather not rush back, and another July study revealed that only a third of British workers had returned to the office, clearly this isn’t everyone. It shouldn’t come as a surprise: for many — and especially for commuters — working lifestyles have become increasingly unbearable.

Before we embarked upon our mass national experiment in remote working, the centrifugal power of our cities seemed a law of nature. Anyone with ambition had to be physically present where the jobs were — and that meant, chiefly, London. Caught up in that trend, for a while I took the train from Bedfordshire to London five days a week for work. It was horrible.

When you commute, there’s a relentless, conveyor-belt feeling to every working day: out of the house shortly after 6am, the daily worry you’ll miss your train, fighting for the last station parking spot, fighting for the last train seat, fighting to get on your connecting train when you get to town. By the time you make it to work, you’ve been fighting for two hours, and you know you’ll have to do it all over again at the other end of the day.

There’s no time to do anything at home except make a quick meal and collapse, exhausted, in front of the telly. If I tried to do anything else at all in the evenings, I was running a chronic sleep deficit. I was constantly ill. With socialising and exercising time consumed by travel, I piled on weight and lost touch with friends. In the winter, when the barest hint of normal seasonal phenomena such as ice or wet leaves makes the trains curl up and die, I’d often enjoy an unscheduled hour or so added to my journey time, usually whenever it was least convenient. For all these privileges, I was charged close to £10,000 a year by train companies whose services were overcrowded and unreliable.

I was one of around a million commuters paying a version of these personal costs, for a middling seat at London’s economic banquet. This banquet, while plentiful for many, has had large-scale political costs too. Back in 2016, the Brexit vote revealed a country bitterly split between the urban, liberal and cosmopolitan winners of globalisation, and (as repeatedly implied by that august demographic) globalisation’s reactionary, provincial thicko losers.

Our political class has been murmuring for a while now about how terribly sad it is that cultures and demographics are polarising between urban centre and provincial periphery. They mostly looked carefully past the bottom line, which is that London has enjoyed its pre-eminent position by concentrating the lion’s share of Britain’s ambition and intelligence in its penumbra.

The advantages of this to the winners in the arrangement have been obvious: a bottomless supply of talent, a global reputation for cultural dynamism and apparently copper-bottomed property prices. The costs, in political polarisation and the ever more extreme nature of commuter lifestyles, were either ignored or treated as unfortunate but inevitable side-effects of the otherwise positive “London effect”.

Borne aloft by his landslide victory last December, Boris promised to heal the nation’s economic and geographic divides by “levelling up” the rest of the country — a phrasing that assumes the way forward is to encourage everywhere else to ascend to London’s giddy heights.

Only now, the boom in remote working means talent and disposable income no longer needs to be physically present in London five days a week. There’s been a stampede to get out of the metropolis, with a surge in enquiries for more spacious rural properties — especially those with space to work from home. That could be great for the provinces; but it also means that the “levelling” Boris promised may turn out to mean less building on London’s success than ending its stranglehold on the nation’s workforce.

I don’t pretend to have been an irreplaceable loss to the capital, but for me, back in 2016, it was having a baby that tipped the balance. I couldn’t think of a London job I wanted to do badly enough, or that seemed likely to pay me enough, to warrant leaving my infant with someone else 12 hours a day while I returned to the treadmill. Once I calculated that the London salary premium is consumed by the cost of commuting for all but the highest earners, the whole arrangement just seemed mad.

Now, having demonstrated that remote working is fine at least some of the time, much of commuter-belt Britain seems to be making similar calculations. If your commute is 90 minutes either way, working from home two or three days a week amounts to half a day of family or leisure time clawed back every single week. That’s a whole extra weekend’s worth of free time, every month. Who in their right mind would relinquish that save under duress?

Duress is coming, though. Early in August, US bank Morgan Stanley published research that stopped barely short of calling British workers lazy. When I read the headline British workers more reluctant to return to work than Europeans, my first thought was “wait, who said it was a competition?” But from the bankers’ point of view, when cubicle drones boycott their cubicle, home-working means a deserted City of London. And that, in turn, means a struggling commercial property market, as businesses scale down their office sizes or scramble for premises without germ-laden shared lifts.

A source tells me workers in financial services have been saying privately for some time that they could do their jobs from home with no loss of productivity. Now that the virus has proven them right, the firms they work for are panicking about their exposure to an urban commercial property market that’s looking shaky to say the least. No wonder Morgan Stanley (whose 2019 advice on the London commercial property market was bullish) is now looking for ways to guilt the plebs out of their home offices and back into London, by talking up some imaginary competition over which nation can resume the rat race with more Stakhanovite fervour.

It’s not just banks: the Government’s return-to-work mood music has now shifted from friendly encouragement, to a more threatening tone. When we hear unnamed official sources whipping up fear of job losses among the stubbornly home-working commuter class, we should remember that London’s skyscraper boom is itself a legacy of Boris Johnson’s years as mayor, with a glut of such applications waved through toward the end of his mayoral term. Perhaps we should not be surprised if Johnson now shows a reluctance to embrace a variant of the “levelling” agenda that would leave all those shiny skyscrapers standing empty.

Nor is it just commercial property. The cubicle-drone rebellion echoes all the way down the metropolitan economy. Last week, Pret A Manger announced it was cutting 2,800 jobs, as commuters and office workers stay home instead. Pizza Express, Byron Burger and Frankie & Benny’s have also announced job losses.

Beyond the “lunchtime economy”, countless small-business owners depend on the daily influx of commuters, from masseurs and City gyms to dry cleaners and in-office yoga instructors. Such businesses often have little working capital. One City-based physiotherapist reports turnover currently at 20% of the usual figure. If London ceases to demand workers’ physical presence every day, the consequence will be a tsunami of pain through all levels of the capital’s economy, from property giants down to sole traders and baristas. And it’s one thing telling Morgan Stanley to “take the hit”; if we’re facing a major economic rebalancing away from London, we’ll also have to face the human cost of that rebalancing on countless small businesses.

And yet, this human cost was “market forces” when it was the provinces declining toward despair while the cities flourished. Globalisation has winners and losers, we were told; to make an omelette you have to break eggs. So you’d think there might be the odd voice arguing that shifting some of London’s talent and spending power out to live in the provinces is at least a plausible tradeoff.

Before coronavirus, London was home to around a third of all the coffee shops in Britain. No one is advancing the possibility that losing some of these might not represent an absolute loss to the national coffee-shop total, so much as a shift in daytime disposable income to suburban or small-town locations. It might even mean the opening of new coffee shops in locations where they previously weren’t viable.

But it seems as though, should we wish to make omelettes, it’s only okay to break provincial eggs. The golden egg that is London’s economy is not available for culinary purposes. Early signs from our political leaders indicate that “levelling” is only a political option if it’s ‘up’, toward a London whose apex position stays unassailable. But if that “levelling” turns out to be a tradeoff, at London’s expense, we can expect the revolt of the cubicle drones to face brisk Government counter-measures.