Alexandra Marsanu: Working from home – and why we need evolution, not a revolution

6 Sep

Alexandra Marsanu is a Ward Chair at Holborn and St Pancras Conservatives and Deputy Chair for London at Conservative Young Women. She works professionally as a strategy consultant.

A polarising debate has been taking place recently.  On one hand, there is a rare alliance between the Government, media and auxiliary businesses denouncing the impact of homeworking on highstreets, career growth and the mental health of the workers themselves. On the other, you see a majority of workers perfectly content to keep calm and carry on.

No more squeezing on the tube at rush hour; no more money wasted on soggy sandwiches and coffee; no more interruptions or time lost in pointless chitchat over what you did last weekend. An era of high productivity and improved home life is upon us. But would it really be that easy?

Rather than an expected gradual shift to flexible working driven by innovation in collaboration tools, an increase in the ‘gig economy’ or drive for decarbonisation, we have not been given time or choice.

Over the course of a few unusual days, offices were shut down and kitchen tables were seized for the new digital future of the 2020s. We have made do so well with Zoom and Teams and home-made banana loaf that office life seems from a bygone era – not fit for the modern days of self-driving cars and 3D printed buildings. But let’s not forget that they say ‘good things take time’ for a reason.

Although our homes may be packed with monitors and Amazon boxes, many business owners are looking at the empty chairs and aisles and wondering for how long they can still go on. The furlough anaesthetic is due to wear off, and with money quickly running out many are in for a tough autumn.

And for some, it may indeed be time to close shop. Why should taxpayers prop up a chain business just because they hire many people? For many others, it may be difficult to see the value in what they offer. Why would we need to go out and spend our hard-earned money on overcrowded trains and £3 coffee?

Of course, it is difficult to empathise with businesses. After all, the free market will take its tool eventually. But with a £2 trillion debt and still many months of uncertainty to come, there is a case for the economics that has worked so well until now.

Through the measures seen so far, the Government seems to be doing just that. Taking a page out of Keynesian economics, it’s looking to maintain today’s supply for when demand recovers, hopefully next year. And given how symbiotic our economy is, nothing makes more sense.

Many professional areas can be taken as examples. In consulting, banking and legal services the mix of industries needing support is under a constant shift. Where public sector work may be building up in the short term for areas such as consultancy, the impact of huge retailers or automotive companies shutting down is already playing out, and will do so during the months and years to come

Similarly, jobs supporting the most affected industries ranging from marketing to accounting may take a hit as cuts to the frontline are slimming down operations. Even a coveted career in technology may not be completely safe, since technology changes take years to implement and big players such as Accenture or IBM are already reporting job cuts in the past few months. If the impact is big enough, one way or another thange will reach all of us.

So what is there to do? Isn’t the Government’s job to save jobs? Is it really up to each of us to dash to the office so we can put yet another plaster on the economy? After all, we have already eaten our way towards the hospitability recovery last month.

Well, the fact of the matter is that we can’t just go back to the old ways. You see, there wouldn’t really be the space for all of us to go back in the office due to social distancing.

But we can’t expect that the world we see today is here for the long run. Not in an economy which is 30 per cent based on consumption. Unemployment benefits and a significant decrease in tax receipts will only divert from spending which can help make public services better or ease the debt for future generations. Considering a phased or rotational return to the office may be our best contribution until the tourists are back or workers can re-skill.

An exciting ‘future of work’ revolution is already here – one where we balance our work and home life in hybrid working patterns fit for a highly productive economy. And it may indeed be a useless pursuit to spend the money today in saving something that won’t be required tomorrow. But no revolution comes without pain and time to rebuild is what’s needed now.

Alexandra Marsanu: Rather than being paralysed by the doom and gloom, we need to seize the new opportunities

7 Aug

Alexandra Marsanu is a Ward Chair at Holborn and St Pancras Conservatives and Deputy Chair for London at Conservative Young Women. She works professionally as a strategy consultant.

There is no doubt that the unprecedented health crisis will have a massive impact for the months and years to come. From heart-breaking loss of life to more than nine million workers on furlough to increasing waves of layoffs and business closures. The numbers show a grim story unfolding, and the economic one has only just begun.

That doesn’t mean however, that we should become completely paralysed by the doom and gloom. Yes, difficult times lie ahead. And yes, a pessimist or cautious take tends to catch the public mind much more easily than an enthusiastic, potentially reckless cheerleader. But as history has shown time and time again, you can always bet on Britain’s strength to survive and turn each challenge into an opportunity. And given the looming economic shifts, a re-think of how businesses are run and what skills are needed for the post-covid economy should start sooner rather than later.

The effects of covid-19 have certainly started laying out the breadcrumbs for the next waves of innovation. ‘Just-in-time’ production and global supply chains have proven vulnerable to disruption. Empty high-streets show an already struggling retail industry in need of massive transformation. Working from home has been more successful than expected as many office workers are reluctant to get back to the Pret sandwich diet or stand on a crowded tube.

A need for change on how we do things is slowly but surely emerging. Take manufacturing and supply chains. Could the flimsy global supply chains experienced in the past few months signify a need for bringing it back home? The shift to the services industry led to manufacturing accounting for just 8.7 per cent of economic output this year, down from 15 per cent in the 1990s. And given the allure of high-paying professional services or finance jobs, this is not surprising.

But as Elon Musk put it best “someone needs to do the real work”. If we don’t produce anything we don’t have anything and empty supermarket shelves and the PPE crisis back in March certainly proved that. A domestic production of basic necessities such as food, medicine and PPE, is not a bad thing to have in times of crisis. A need to speed up decarbonisation can be catalysed by investing in new technologies in such as energy storage, cheaper electric vehicles or small modular nuclear reactors. Automation, artificial intelligence and 3D printing can make advanced manufacturing attractive and help tackle the reshoring headwinds.

The success of remote working is another interesting trend to explore. Ghostly streets in Bank or Canary Wharf flag that Tramsport for London, lunch spots and office rents are in deep trouble. Without workers or tourists roaming the streets some may need to shut down for good. But while some ways of working may come back once a vaccine is ready, technology has proven that many don’t need to. Could this offer interesting opportunities in revitalising the dying high streets in small towns with the same fitness or eat-out facilities you may find in Central London? Or could this finally incentivise many more companies to not concentrate their offices in one location and move to a hub/co-working approach? A hybrid work from home model may be the future.

But given the uncertainty of the economic recovery, how can we know for sure what will change and what will stick? Nassim Taleb offers an intriguing thought in his book on the so-called black swan events:

“The reason free markets work is that they allow people to be lucky, thanks to aggressive trial and error.”

And why not take this approach?

Your typical entrepreneur seems to use this best. A new idea is tried out. The mistakes are learnt from. It is adapted. That tends to lead to better results than massive costly projects. New policies could be tested through small experiments and local community feedback. As jobs become more dispersed, a small town could try out a restructuring of its high street to become a place for entertainment and public services. Local community feedback can easily be gathered. And if it works others will quickly adopt it.

Further Education colleges and work placements can be another quick way to try out a job change and re-skill for the new economy. Instead of having millions of people compete for jobs which may no longer exist, short online courses could be used to learn new things. Digital skills can be learned and tested over a matter of weeks. Or different career paths can be tested out through re-training and short placements for career changers similar to Sunak’s Kick Start Scheme aimed at 16-24-year-olds.

The uncertainty may look numbing, but opportunities will become apparent once the crisis settles and habits change. Now is the time to tinker as much as possible with new ideas. As researchers work day and night to find a vaccine and the furlough scheme puts the breaks on an economic crash, we need to make sure that we don’t emerge unprepared on the other side.