The evolutionary path of the workplace

Thanks to Twitter I recently discovered a gem: footage from 1964 of Arthur C Clarke predicting the virtualisation of work and the rise of remote working.  Clarke envisaged instant communication being possible between anyone anywhere on the planet. Remote working would replace the fixed workplace. The daily commute, Clarke promised, would be consigned to history.


Fifty years on seems like the right time to assess Clarkes’ prognosis.

Yes, technological and audio-visual developments in communication have facilitated remote working. As well as high speed email communication, it is now considerably cheaper, faster and more sustainable to conduct meetings with clients or colleagues located in different geographies via video-link.

We first saw a ripple and then a wave of employers offering remote and flexible working opportunities to their staff.  According to a Trades Union Congress analysis of unpublished data from the Labour Force Survey, just over 4 million UK employees worked full time from home in 2012 – a rise of 13% since 2007. In addition to the four million people usually working from home, it is thought many millions more occasionally work from home.

This trend is still in the ascendency in the UK, particularly at the current time where rents, land values and construction costs in Central London are pushing upwards and occupiers are responding by reducing their real estate footprint and increasing occupational densities. However the property market is not the only determinant factor. As important are the wants and desires of the modern worker; the rethinking of organisational structures and cultures and a greater consideration of the work that has and should be done in the office.

But while we have seen an increase in remote and flexible working, the death of the daily commute foreseen by Clarke has not materialized. In fact, a recent article in The Economist reveals that increasing numbers of people are commuting both into and out of London to their place of employment and that the average journey length is increasing.  Some 795,000 people commuted to London from the rest of the country (outside of Greater London) in 2011, up from 724,000 in 2001. Over the same period, the number of people commuting out of London to Leeds, for example, approximately doubled.

Evidence from the Office of National Statistics (Commuting and Personal Well-being 2014) tells us that longer commutes lead to higher levels of anxiety and lower life satisfaction. But many accept the daily commute because of high costs of homes in London.

So, given where we are now, what could we expect to see in another 50 years from now? I am no Arthur C Clarke, but I would expect to see:

  • People commuting longer distances to London from further afield.  This has already begun, spurred on by growing investment in public transport and reducing journey times from some locations to London.
  • Greater accessibility to London resulting in rejuvenation of other towns and cities and an increase in reverse commuting (although London to remain at the centre),
  • There is clear inter-dependence between flexible /remote working and commuting. The growth of remote and flexible working (for at least part of the week) means that people can accept longer commutes as they are not doing it every day. I therefore anticipate this trend will become even more widespread, also fuelled by changing attitudes from new generations of workers who will increasingly view work as a ‘thing’ rather than a ‘place’ where they have to spend a standard 8 hours a day.
  • An enduring requirement for physical office space based around the need for collaboration, better communication, innovation and quick decision making.

I will put the crystal ball away now….  Please feel free to quote me in 50 years time.