As we all try to work out what living with or after Covid means for us, whether as parents seeking to ensure our children are safe and happy or as colleagues in an enterprise working through how to recreate a culture of collaboration in hybrid locations, in person and online, it is crucial that we look outside ourselves to consider the future of a key character in our still evolving drama that is in danger of being written out. That is the city itself.
Although Australians don’t always think of ourselves in this way we are among the most urban communities on the planet.
More than 80% of us live in just a handful of capital cities and 90% live in an urban settlement. Similarly, while we all know the contribution of resources to our national economy, few seem to have realised that the financial and professional services of Sydney’s CBD provide as much GDP to the country as the Western Australian mining economy.
Our national wealth rests on two foundations, not one: the role of our city-based economy has been fundamental. It is in danger.
Look out your office window, if you are among the minority of workers back in your city workplace. Though not as deserted as at the height of the pandemic the blight that started then of city streets without people and mass transit without masses of commuters, is still afflicting our centres.
And at the same time, our roads are filled with more cars than before Covid, as continued fear of infection has restored old habits of driving to work on our own, to avoid human contact.
Although Australia is a top performer in terms of health outcomes with fewer deaths in New South Wales than in one London council area – and we are in danger of forgetting how this drama will have a happier ending here than most places – our cities have been hit harder than many. The lock-downs have been as severe here as anywhere, with Melbourne standing out in the nation, but only just.
Of course, effective government economic management mitigated much of the financial damage to businesses and home-working enabled knowledge workers – though not of course those serving or delivering to them – to carry on their jobs safely.
We weren’t all in this together. Many jobs dependent on workers being in their city offices have disappeared never to return. Over a third and in some places half the hospitality and retail enterprises are no longer with us.
Homeworking may have saved lives. It’s killing our cities and their job-generating CBDs and centres.
Our commercial centres perform their vital economic function of national wealth creation and job creation through their concentration of people and talent in dense locations with thick, diverse, labour markets.
That agglomeration with its irreplaceable multiplier effects – the jobs in our CBDs in hospitality or retail for example, catalysed by that concentration of high paid knowledge workers that economists have celebrated – is what we lose at our peril.
That “city effect” of course also has massive impact beyond merely the material as cities and the unique capacity they have to attract and mix peoples of all kinds, from all over the world, are crucial to the cultural and creative lives of their nations – and to the successful integration of old and new communities.
Homeworking has been a revelation. The promise of online working had never quite been delivered before and its potential is now clearer. We also know that many workers have welcomed its flexibility and freedom and its capacity to help them integrate their working and family lives.
All employers will be enabling hybrid working to meet the needs of such staff and will seek to ensure that online workers are integrated within office staff.
City offices are being adaptively re-designed to enable this and indeed many are being repurposed so that they become special places to meet other team members and do collective activities only achievable in a shared space with more mundane or intensely private work being done from home.
At the same time, the poor health consequences for workers of sitting down, in their homes all day, without sufficient boundaries between work and non-work, are becoming clearer, as is the threat homeworking can pose to gender equality with evidence indicating women tend to bear the brunt of home management duties in lockdown while facing a potential danger of losing out on promotion opportunities which may arise more for staff present in their offices. These are real world threats.
What is also clear from international studies is that while certain kinds of business activities lend themselves to home and hybrid working, innovation and creativity that often arise from water cooler moments – the agglomeration effect – are not as available.
Hard to maintain culture from the home office
Training and onboarding new staff are deep problems and crucially the very culture of an enterprise is difficult to maintain let alone nurture. We have all managed and coped. But we now need to flourish again. Our staff need this to bring vitality back to their working lives but also to assure their futures.
Crucially our cities and the communities reliant on their liveliness and agglomeration, need us too. The buzz and intensity of walkable city streets, served by mass transit, together with the interactions in an office – all are vital to our economic and cultural life.
If the “new normal” does not include a restoration of those elements, of the very sociability that is at the heart of cities’ success, we shall all be the poorer, materially but also spiritually.
And here we make a call. We commend governments at all tiers for their decisive interventions. We praise workers and companies for their amazing resilience and we thank all those who helped us through, from doctors and nurses to Amazon delivery folk and Uber Eats.
But we now need governments, business and the community to work together to fill our streets with life again and to safely and healthily but energetically reclaim our offices and our very urban lives. We are a clever nation and with imagination, collaboration and confidence we can and must reinvent our city centres, our workplaces and our ways of getting between home and work safely, respecting the needs of all.
We recall as we say this that one of the good things to come out of this otherwise dark period is a greater sharing of key values around, for example, protecting our environment.
Companies such as ours are more animated then ever about designing a net zero future. But we also want others to recall that as we increase our emphasis on the ‘E’ part of our ESG agendas we must also be animated by, and excited by, meeting the new challenges of the ‘S’ part: the ‘social’ aims of our enterprises now need to come centre stage too, and companies now need to have a laser focus on how sociability is to be enhanced going forward in our offices, our streets, our communities and our cities. We need to get back to the city.