Comment

City workers shouldn’t be so fast to join the London exodus

Moving to the countryside assumes that, in the future, most business will be done from a virtual office – I'm not so sure

Q: I’m an office worker in London who’s yet to return to the office. I suspect I won’t return on a five-day basis ever again. Is it therefore a good idea for my family to relocate outside the capital? 

It’s something we always wanted to do (money, well-being and schools are the main reasons), but I’ll likely have to commute for 90 minutes for the days I am in. Now seems a good time given the stamp duty holiday, but I don’t know what my employer has planned.

A: I was discussing your question with a friend while having lunch in a local pub when I realised how many life changes we have taken on the chin since the beginning of the year. 

Our visit reminded me of Fawlty Towers. We were greeted by Basil, who gave us a rules sheet and a lecture, then told us to use the hand gel before we could be shown to our table, which was just six paces from where we were standing. But this was an anti-clockwise pub, so we had to follow Basil’s one-way system, passing all our fellow customers before we could sit down and take off our masks.

Fortunately, the loo was situated in an anti-clockwise direction, but I was stumped by the notice on the door: “Only three at a time”. How could I know how many were already inside? I took a chance and found that I was on my own, admiring a sign posted in the middle of three urinals: “Please don’t pee here”.

We kept to the rules on our departure, ignoring the entry door next to our table, going all the way round the pub, passing 23 customers to reach the official exit.

Our pub visit made me think. I was originally going to encourage you to move when I suddenly realised that six months of coronavirus have caused us to abandon common sense and decide that life will never be the same again. Take a step back and think before making any rash choices in the pressure of the moment.

You wouldn’t be the only one to be on the move; mortgage approvals in August were at their highest monthly level for 13 years, driven by the pandemic and a rush to buy homes outside our large urban centres. But this trend comes at a price: the average cost of a house has jumped above £245,000. That’s good news for retired couples who want to downsize from their idyllic but remote country cottages to live near local shops and a few neighbours. They are finding no shortage of buyers, who have the added incentive of a stamp duty holiday.

You are contemplating a major change in your lifestyle: new schools, new neighbours, a view of rolling parkland, communicating with your work colleagues on Zoom and only commuting on one day a week. It might sound ideal, but have you thought whether your employer can operate successfully with a team of colleagues dispersed all over the UK?

There’s no doubt in my mind that companies that continue to meet face to face will enjoy a distinct competitive advantage. Personal contact and body language play an important part in creating ideas and decision making – and yet some executives, recruited over the past six months, have never been in the same room as any of their colleagues. 

Your proposed move assumes that, in the future, most business will be done from a virtual office. I’m not so sure. People are working from home because Boris Johnson has told them to do so and the social distancing police have sucked all the buzz out of offices. 

The Government is trying to control the virus by controlling our behaviour, like my lunchtime pub. We are following the rules, but ignoring common sense. 

If you decide to move out of town, don’t just check that you have good broadband. Also make sure that you’re only an hour away from your office, as you may well be back there in two years’ time.

Sir John Timpson is chairman of the high-street services provider, Timpson.

Send him a question at [email protected]

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