The Geography of Flexible Working

The invention of a sophisticated internet should, in theory, have been the catalyst for the explosion of flexible working and the removal of geographical restrictions. With a huge array of communications options available; from video calls, phone calls, instant messaging, content creation and email, there is no longer any need for employees to flock to cities in droves.

Yet, every morning you will find every train carriage, bus and road heading into London full to bursting point. So, what is happening? Why do megacities continue to grow? Why does every student still feel like they have to go to London to ‘make it’? What about places outside of London?


The Social Animal

We are social. We want to be where the conversation burns brightest. For many professionals in the UK, that means going to London, which is by far, the leading city in terms of job opportunities, income potential and market growth. It is also a global cultural hotspot, with some of the finest museums, restaurants and creative entertainment available.

A third of UK businesses are in London or the South East (1.1 million in London and 874,000 in the South East) — House of Commons, Report Number 06152, 12 December 2018

With so many businesses based in a connected London, workers (especially graduates) are continuing to flood into the capital. One reason for this is that most of the longstanding powerhouse industries, such as finance, legal services and government authorities are still resistant to flexible working. Together they account for around 35% of space in London according to the Cushman & Wakefield 2019 Coworking Report.

Despite this, flexible space actually represents the largest sector in the report, making up 18% of London’s offices. This is a positive indication that we are seeing a change in the way we work. This growth should be attributed to the ongoing evolution of the flexible working model. Originally the drive was centred around freelancers and startups, but now it has evolved to meet the various requirements of businesses. Hybrid solutions now dominate the sphere, offering a mix of serviced offices and open plan working environments.

In the future, we will likely see more companies in London transitioning into flexible offices to meet the growing demand from young people for positive working environments. Earlier this year, the BBC published an article about the number of people leaving London, especially parents in their 30s and 40s seeking better work-life balance. Statistics like this may encourage more London-based companies to adapt their working models in order to retain some of these departing employees.


The Picture Outside of London

For decades, the economy of many regional towns has revolved around sourcing, producing, manufacturing and distributing goods. These goods could be anything from food to pharmaceuticals, fossil fuels to toys. The main reason for this is due to space. Space to establish factories and production centres. Space to grow and cultivate. Space that does not exist in cities. For many years they were the lifeblood of the British economy, and the story was similar across much of Europe, but now society is transitioning towards a service-based economy. (An Unconcious Uncoupling, The Economist, September 14th 2019)

Services include things like cloud computing, advertising and data crunching. The teams that create and sell these services do not require space in the same way as those that produce and distribute goods. They are often a small group of experts operating in the Cloud, which makes them nimble and remote-friendly. Of course, many of these companies will retain an office in London, it is still the best place to network and it holds an element of prestige, however, we are seeing an increasing number of companies operating from flexible workspace outside of the capital.

Why? Most obviously, regional towns offer lower rent rates, always a winner with business owners. There is also increasing public awareness about the correlation between good mental health and headspace. Regional areas are often close to nature with clean air and less congestion, which in turn makes for a positive environment for raising children and having pets. Finally, there is a greater sense of community in smaller towns and cities for those who struggle with the emotional pressure of living in a big city.

Many councils across the country have spotted the opportunity to rejuvenate local areas by building flexible workspace. The idea is that with people able to work locally, instead of commuting to the nearest city, we will witness the regrowth of regional towns, from an influx of restaurants and shops, to travel connections and commercial investment. The continuing demand for flexible working will play an important part in the growth of regional hubs outside of London, like Manchester, Leeds and Bristol.


Going Global Locally

Since its inception, the internet has gradually spread its ethereal influence over our personal and professional lives. Most of us now use smartphones and laptops on a daily basis, and with the Internet of Things becoming a reality we will increasingly live in a ‘Smart-World’. The impact of this widespread adoption is difficult to measure, but it is interesting to see that despite all these new avenues of connectivity we are still resistant to using them to positively change work environments.

For example, companies are happy to use modern communication technology to conduct international business, but this has yet to filter down into internal operations. Why? The preservation of historic models of work, e.g. 9–5, formal dress code, keeping an eye on staff. The attitude among some business leaders is very much — why fix something that isn’t broken? Indeed, some are working to super-charge these models by introducing technology that monitors workers and workflow in increasingly invasive ways.

Well, commercially, it may seem that nothing is broken, profit margins are being met, cheques cashed and bonuses paid. But, this could all change with the next generation, according to a recent NY Times article. There is a shift in how millennials view work — they see it as something to balance around their lives, not dominate them. They want to work hard, but on their own terms. Give it a decade and it will be interesting to see who emerges victor after the clash of modern and traditionalist attitudes.

We think we will see more companies going global locally.


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