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Covid: How to think about cities and working from home

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The pros and cons to working from home, for those whose jobs allow it, has become a global conversation. But the uncertainty that we feel about our routine, lifestyle, and future is writ large for local and national policymakers, who are trying to figure out how to respond to the massive impact working from home may have on cities and towns.

There is no shortage of crystal-ball gazing. It isn’t even a new topic – the ‘death of the city due to remote working’ narrative is as old as the telephone. And, since March, thinkers from a variety of disciplines have been weighing in daily.

What Works Growth hosted a discussion between a dozen experts to try to understand the COVID-era dynamics. We were hoping to cut through the myriad forecasts, musings and speculations about the future of cities and identify solid evidence which might provide guidance.

There aren’t a lot of studies. There is a limited pre-COVID-19 evidence base on the relationship between working from home and productivity. The few studies we could find post-COVID-19 failed to consider the impact of home schooling (help!) or other COVID-specific challenges on home-workers’ productivity.

However, for places that are trying to figure out what they should do to adjust to the changes, we can offer four suggestions for the next few months.

Firstly, understanding the extent and nature of working from home in your city or town will help make sense of all the ‘Future of Cities’ thinkpieces. The ability to work from home varies across occupations and industries. It will have a bigger impact in some places than others. In London, as many as five in 10 workers could shift to home; in Barnsley, Burnley and Stoke fewer than two in 10.

In addition, the impact of working from home will be different for different people. Young people’s careers may be more negatively affected – spending time and sharing workspace with more senior colleagues is an important part of their development. The Centre for Cities has a good resource to help you understand how these play out in your place.

Secondly, the upheaval is unprecedented and the impacts of working from home on productivity and cities are still unfolding. The conversation in our roundtable quickly became tied up in countervailing influences which we all agreed made predicting the likely outcomes impossible. From a policy point of view, a ‘wait and see’ approach may be best. There is a strong argument to be made that if a vaccine arrives in the next six months, things will return to the way they were. And most policy interventions, such as changing the mix of uses in town centres, will take years to implement.

In the meantime, using data to monitor the impact on your local economy will help you plan for the future. We have published advice on which data sources can be most helpful.

Finally, there are other impacts of the pandemic which you can address now. When it comes to economic impacts, one thing is clear: unemployment is rising more sharply for young people. Periods of unemployment when young, especially during recessions, can have long-lasting effects on young people’s future labour market outcomes and on wider issues such as health and quality of life. There are things that can be done now to help. We have published guidance on what the evidence suggests is effective.

And do get in touch with us if you need advice on any of these issues. We are keen to understand the challenges that local authorities are grappling with and to help where we can.