“You’ve had your lunch now go back to work”

Let’s plan properly now to eradicate the daily commute which can leave people tired and drained before they even start a day’s work. Get things right and we can emerge from Covid with a better more contended work force and more productive companies.

The headline to this blog is not mine. It’s a real headline from the Daily Mail. I repeat it here not to praise it but to show how grotesque the thinking is from right wing press and politicians.

The back drop to the story is, of course, two factors. The Government has issued meal vouchers of up to £10 per diner to use restaurants on a Monday to Wednesday. At the same time, it is encouraging people to ‘get back to work’ by which it means get back to the office.

I have to question whether the £10 voucher scheme will be a real help. Our hospitality industry needs support or our High Streets will be full of shuttered retail shops and hospitality venues. However, the evidence that has so far collected in the 5 days of the scheme in my area suggests that people who would otherwise have eaten out later in the week have moved to the first 3 days. We shall know more when the first week is complete and we will know even more when the project ends on the last day of August.

As I have looked into my local restaurants, I would feel entirely comfortable in all but one of them. In fact, I went in one on Thursday night for our weekly take away. Tables have been moved out to reduce the number who can be in at any one time. There were sanitizers and direction signs. Interestingly, this venue was one of the majority in my area that decided not to go for a pavement café licence. They thought it would bring the wrong sort of customer and would be too much effort.

I have to question though whether this was the best use of the money. It will cost an estimated £500 million. Yet the Government had to be shamed into making £130 million available for free lunches during the school holidays. This money was nowhere near enough. I think the money would have been better employed giving healthy food vouchers to people on benefits or furlough who are really struggling to cope.

Yet although I am annoyed about this part of the headline, I am outraged by the suggestion that those who have been working from home have been skiving. I sit in the front window of my home in Liverpool working or holding remote meetings and I see loads of people during the day who would otherwise be in an office in town. They are going for the same lunchtime stroll that they would have done in an office and getting thee same lunch that they would have done in town but now from the Penny Lane Londis. Before and after that lunch they have been working. Doing the same work that they have been doing in their job under normal circumstances.

When I think of my own life style I see from my diary that I have been having as many meetings, seminars and conferences as ever but doing them from my front room. In the past two weeks I have chaired 2 conferences with over 200 participants. On Friday I will be speaking at a Conference with a Princess to an estimated 1,000 students globally.

I know from talking to many of them that they are both doing as much work as they have ever done but feel more satisfied in doing it. No need to dress up for the office. No need to get on a bus or in the car to commute. Instead they can use that precious tome to see more of their children or even better their pets!!

This is a two-way benefit. Many employers are seeing enhanced productivity from their satisfied staff. I have spoken to three employers lately who are considering a big reduction in their office space requirements. They feel, as I do, that offices and meetings are still an important part of business life. Physically getting together can provide a stimulus of ideas and interactions that remote working is not so good at. But those can be done for 2 or 3 days a week working together in the office with the rest of the time being spent working from home.

Some employers have gone even further. A local business employing 14 people is consulting with its staff on closing its office but hiring a table at a local restaurant for all staff to come together on a Friday afternoon for lunch and a sharing of ideas and thoughts. What a lovely way to work.

Of course, there will be winners and losers to all this. The winners will be productive companies and satisfied staff. It will be reduced air pollution and less stress and more jobs in local food bars, cafes and shops. The losers will be those with takeaways and bars in commercial centres who rely on the office trade. The shops and leisure areas in town centres will also take a hit from the reduced footfall of people buying stuff in the lunch hour or on the way home.

This means that Councils and the Government need to think ahead and plan ahead. Trying to shame people to go back into the office or buy a patriotic pint just won’t work. If work patterns have changed dramatically and those work patterns persist, we need to minimise the bad effects on our city centres and plan for enhanced business in our neighbourhood and district centres.

In crude terms this means repurposing our city centres and reducing capital plans based on projected need for office space which are hopelessly optimistic. It means rethinking our transport patterns away from the dreaded commute and the need to balance out rush hours to ways in which we can encourage a better flow between residential areas and their district or neighbourhood hub.

This ‘new’ normal will take time to settle down but providing decision makers act rationally we can end up with better companies, more satisfied workers, better family lifestyles and a better environment. Isn’t that a better prospect than trying to force us to return to a far from satisfactory ‘old’ normal?

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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