Opinion

Don’t be spooked by talk of remote working ‘ghost towns’

The CBI has warned that remote working could lead to the death of city centres, but the reality is more complex

There’s a café near my house that I have come to believe is cursed. It has reopened under new management about five times over the course of the past two years, each time offering lovely hot drinks, cooked breakfasts, sandwiches – you’ve been to a cafe, I’m sure you get the picture.

For each incarnation, my friends and I have said how we hope it works out this time, but alas within six months, the shutters are once again down and we have lost our local cafe.

The problem for the premises has always, I believe, been its location: It doesn’t matter how nice your food and drinks are if you’re situated in a residential area, where the vast majority of your potential customers aren’t able to come in during your opening hours. Instead, they’re working in a town centre, if not commuting into London.

Disruptive technologies, however, may be about to reverse the fortunes of this small business and many others around the country.

While the CBI this week warned that workers must return to the office or risk urban centres becoming ghost towns, I see a different future. My local café – and hundreds of small businesses like it – have much brighter prospects now that their clientele is around at breakfast and lunch time.

The same cloud technologies that have enabled the move to mass remote working and the distributed office may now, indirectly, rejuvenate local, independent businesses as well as global corporations. With less need for commuting, workers will stay closer to home, channeling their spending into the local economy rather than the nearest Costa.

What’s more, it means there’s greater impetus for the government to follow through on its pledge to deliver full fibre internet to every home and business around the UK by 2025 in order to support this continued flourishing of business. This is great news for rural and remote areas too – a personal interest area of mine, as regular IT Pro Podcast listeners will know – which have long suffered from brain drain and population shrinkage as young people are forced to migrate to urban areas in search of work.

The potential effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been greatly mitigated by the cloud and all it has facilitated in terms of keeping businesses going. Why not embrace this change, support the areas of the economy that are growing, and welcome the return of sustainable local business? Is this not the future we’ve been promised for so long; a better work-life balance and greater leisure time enabled by remote working technology?

As for city centres, I don’t believe they’re done for either. Tourism will return, and shopping centres are filling up again already; local shops are wonderful, but they can’t totally replace big-box retail outlets.

And, as great as videoconferencing is, the desire to see another person in the flesh remains. Despite decrying the persistence of distributed working, Daily Mail commentator Richard Littlejohn – himself a self-confessed longtime home worker – offers the most likely solution: That we will visit city centres, both our own and elsewhere, “for meetings, for boozy lunches, and for the sheer joy of interacting with others”. Perhaps we could even schedule them using our cloud-based calendars.

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