The turning tide of working life
Danny Donovan, UK CEO of Mediahub, reflects on the London landscape his father had to adapt to and questions the validity of a return to work
In 1799 the London docks, stretching from Wapping across what we all now know as Canary Wharf, began years of construction due to an increased demand for goods. The previous means of bringing commodities up river to wharves on the Thames was outdated and unsustainable.
It was a technological revolution, created by ‘unprecedented’ (yes that is ironic) industrial and commercial expansion, which saw London’s docks thrive for another 150 years.
Further growth combined with development in freight movement (containerisation, bigger ships, the lorry, air freight) would then one day make them obsolete again, moving London’s docks further down river to Tilbury and Felixstowe.
My late father, having grown up in Bermondsey during the 1940s, and having done his national service in the 50s was a licensed lighterman on the river Thames and later a dock worker, driving tugs and cranes at one of the last London docks to survive - the Victoria Deep Water Terminal at Blackwall near the current site of the O2 arena at North Greenwich.
But like thousands of others he was made redundant - forcing him to retrain as a London Black cab driver, which he did until retirement.
Sailing a large ship up the tidal Thames to bring cargo to London had had its day and everybody had to move on. This created huge upheaval. For many, it resulted in great hardship but also great opportunity for many others - although those two things were many years apart and happened mainly to different groups of people. Such is capitalism.
Dragging people to central London to work every day has become as outdated as sailing a big ship up the tidal Thames bearing goods"
I read recently someone arguing that everyone should go back to work in the glass towers of Canary Wharf in order to support the retail that has sprung up there.
It seemed a strange notion and one which I am sure has echoes of similar pleas from local pubs, cafes, markets which once served the dock workers.
But in reality, there is no apparent need - certainly not an urgent one - for those Canary Wharf office workers and their counterparts around the world to go back to their desks.
They, like most companies and their workers in finance, marketing and a host of other industries, have functioned adequately from their new workstations, in studies, bedrooms, on kitchen and dining-room tables and from many sheds across the country and world.
Created by necessity, fuelled by human adaptability and enabled by extraordinary technology. Moreover the majority of workers are generally quite happy with the situation, and even with restrictions easing, they generally see little reason to return to the daily commute.
The irony is obvious that a new Canary Wharf has been made obsolete by technology, as had happened to the docks which created that landscape in the first place.
Plus of course, there is the potential for cost efficiencies, but let’s ignore the glint in the accountant’s eye for now. Reduced overheads will surely in time mean remuneration renegotiation by sharp pencilled procurement teams and any increased profitability will be short lived.
So why should offices exist? Why do we bring millions of people into one location to sit together for a set time every day of the week? Or any days of the week? Protecting an economy, which was built solely to serve the workers who went there, doesn’t really hold water in the long-term.
There is an amazing opportunity being presented to us. How can we be better when we do come back together physically in some way?"
For many decades, offices made sense for many reasons - not least personal communication required for commerce. But not now. That hundred year habit we held onto until now has been broken, forcibly, and globally.
It is no longer possible to argue it is necessary for purely practical reasons. Dragging people to central London to work every day has become as outdated as sailing a big ship up the tidal Thames bearing goods.
We should basically agree that productivity and quality of work has generally been as good during this enforced absence from our offices as it was before. Some people debate this of course and every company, department and role is different, but on the whole it is true.
But are we missing the magic that people being together physically brings? That intangible element of humanity. The stuff that produces truly brilliant work and sets truly brilliant companies apart.
There is an amazing opportunity being presented to us. How can we be better when we do come back together physically in some way? How can we get 20% better work. 20% more work. Have 20% happier workers. 20% happier clients.
The potential to improve is hugely exciting, but needs careful thought, planning, creativity and ingenuity. The time we will have together will be precious, let’s not waste it.
The time to think about this is now. Before that ship has sailed.
Danny Donovan is UK CEO at Mediahub