By Amit Roy
IF BRITONS continue to insist on working from home after lockdown restrictions have been lifted, they will soon discover their jobs could be outsourced to somewhere like Hyderabad in India, those attending last week’s Financial Times Weekend Festival were told.
This year, the three-day annual festival, which brings together an eclectic mix of writers, thinkers, academics, authors, journalists, celebrities, chefs, gardeners and lifestyle gurus, was switched from Kenwood House in Highgate, north London – its normal venue – to online only.
But this meant that participants did not have to choose between tents but could follow all of the 63 sessions, which will remain available for viewing for 90 days.
The question of the workplace came up in one session, The death of the office – and our home-working future, which featured Lucy Kellaway, former FT columnist and “longtime office fan” who quit her job to become a schoolteacher, and anthropologist and author James Suzman.
The question of the office was also debated when the FT’s Lebanese-origin editor, Roula Khalaf – the first woman to hold the post –discussed its future with a number of her senior journalist colleagues. They included Martin Wolf, the paper’s legendary chief economics commentator, and the Indian origin US political columnist Janan Ganesh.
It was Ganesh who warned there would be a price to pay if home working became the norm.
He was sceptical about the assertion that “working from home is in the long-term interest of actual working people. At some point, it will dawn on working people that if your job can be done from home, it can be done from Hyderabad, it can be done from Warsaw, it can be done from Cape Town.
“If it’s not going to be in a physical office, it may as well be done from another continent. As long as you can find someone in an English-speaking country who has a degree or has transferable intelligence to be trained as an auditor, accountant, lawyer, programmer, whatever, suddenly the barriers to entry to the labour market are literally zero.
“And I can’t stress enough they will not count into UK immigration because there is no juridical problem when it comes to having a staff that is 80 per cent non-UK based, even though the profits will ultimately be put in London, so the implications for labour competition really are seismic.”
He went on: “The only thing that saves people from truly global wage competition is the office or the factory or some kind of physical workplace. Without that it’s a totally global marketplace.
“So I would not be shocked if in a year’s time, a lot of trade unions and other working people come round to the idea that the office matters because it does protect us from a completely Hobbesian free market competition for labour.”
Ganesh did not think a hybrid system, with say, three days in the office and two at home, would work either. “It will create all sorts of internal office problems to do with who gets to stay at home and who doesn’t. One way of avoiding that schism and kind of political awkwardness is you mandate a compromise, which is that most people have to be in the office most of the time.”
A recent survey among FT journalists revealed only two people, including the editor, wanted to return to the office.
Wolf said with the trade war between the US and China and for other reasons, “real globalisation” is ending but is being replaced at pace by “virtual globalisation”.
“I suspect we will eventually go back to the office over the next few years, though not all the way back to where we were before,” Wolf suggested. “There are some things we’ve learned. We don’t need to be there five days a week. Now we’re in a world in which competition will not be for jobs in manufacturing, but for jobs in quite high-level services.”
He said a presence in the office was essential if new recruits were to absorb the corporate culture of a company. “And that cannot happen without physical interaction, without being with other people. Human beings, I think, need that very, very much.
“If we’re going to retain an organisational cultural core to a business – and without it I don’t think they’re going to survive – that requires some systematic face-to-face interaction to keep going over time. And for that reason, the office in some form or the other will remain a central part of our lives if we have viable organisations.”
From the anthropological point of view, the office was not important, said Suzman, who spent seven years working in one. “For me, the most important thing of the office was actually not the work,” he said. “A lot of the work was pointless. In fact, a lot of work people did was trying to make themselves seem important.
“But what it did do was hold a massively important social function in people’s minds. People spent more time in the office than they did at home with their families and developed all sorts of networks. In a sense, it gave their life meaning. In the 20th century, it became what the village used to be in the agricultural era.”
The internet had fundamentally changed people’s lives, he added. “People have begun to find community again in other completely different new ways, whether it’s their particular hobbies, or forums within social media. The office ceases to be as much of a social binding force as it was in the past. And I’ve got a feeling that this Covid crisis and working from home has accelerated the transition that was on the go already.”
Kellaway spoke of the consequences of home working, especially for the young. She started on a personal note: “My son is starting in the workplace. He’s upstairs at the minute on yet another Zoom call which he has been doing since March.
“He has none of what I had for decades – and I grew up in the golden age of the office. It was tea ladies, the drinking at lunchtime age when it was really the core of my social life.
“I met my husband at work. A lot of my best friends now come from my early days at the FT and even before I worked there. It was absolutely vital socially. It was also such a laugh. You can’t have that when you’re on your own.
“What going to an office meant to me was that I had two selfs and this was so precious. I had my home self – when my kids were young, there was an awful lot of shouting at children. And then I had my much more professional work self. What a beauty to be able to switch from one to another. The minute I was really tired of my work self, I would get on my bike, I would go home. That’s something that we’re really losing.”