Column: Coronavirus and the great workplace debate – John Kemp

LONDON (Reuters) – Decisions on where and how to work are embodied in trillions of dollars of investment worldwide, including the siting of commercial and residential real estate as well as transportation systems and other infrastructure.

FILE PHOTO: A woman prepares a coffee as she works in a house while workers are forced to work from home and demand payback for extra home office costs during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Sassenheim, Netherlands October 2, 2020. REUTERS/Eva Plevier

Even a small shift in work patterns and behaviour can unleash hundreds of billions of dollars of new capital spending, while devaluing older assets that are no longer fully utilised.

The enormous investments in employment, real estate, transport, energy supply and other utilities ensure they have considerable stickiness or inertia, with changes normally measured over decades.

Occasionally, however, the system’s ordinary evolution is accelerated by a shock such as war, revolution, disaster, disease or technological change, speeding the creation of new investments and obsolescence of old ones.

Though there is normally strong opposition to system-level changes, the disruptive forces can sometimes become so strong that they overcome the natural inertia and result in rapid change (“The lever of riches: technological creativity and economic progress”, Mokyr, 1990).

ACCELERATOR

COVID-19 is becoming a prime candidate as a change accelerator because of its magnitude (the largest economic disturbance since the Second World War) and duration (likely to be more than 12 months).

The pandemic has left parts of the system largely unchanged, including agriculture, mining, manufacturing and freight transport, where the nature of the work limits changes that can be made to its location or performance.

But other parts, including retailing, professional and business services, travel and tourism, hospitality, entertainment and higher education, have been hit by the largest shock since 1945.

The affected industries are particularly clustered in primary cities and global hubs, which explains why the epidemic is centred on such places and poses the greatest challenge to their future.

For similar reasons, the biggest impact has been in the advanced economies of North America and Europe, where these industries account for a higher share of employment and output.

REASSESSMENT

In North America and Europe, the epidemic has forced a reassessment of the desirability of working in large, densely populated cities and relying heavily on public transport.

Remote working has become a necessity for some and highly desirable for many others, accelerating a trend already in motion.

History is full of examples of princes, merchants and wealthy individuals temporarily fleeing plague-hit cities for the safety of small towns and the countryside (“The Decameron”, Boccaccio, 1353). But what makes the coronavirus crisis different is that communications technology now enables them to stay there after the epidemic is brought under control.

Nonetheless, central workplaces and cities continue to have advantages, including professional networking, creative interactions and transmission of expertise from more experienced to less experienced workers.

While some of the advantages from centralised working benefit individual employees, others accrue to employers and landowners, giving

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