There are many reasons why employees might want to return to their offices and why their employers might be keen to get them there – such as to promote the exchange of ideas in an active environment, to help new recruits learn on the job, and, as Matthew Lynn argued here earlier, for employees to avoid their jobs being outsourced to South Asia. But is it really the job of government to launch a ‘back to the office’ campaign just to prop up the nation’s coffee shops? That is how the Prime Minister seems to see it, and he appears to be backed by Rishi Sunak, who, moved by news of 3000 job losses at Pret, is reported to be considering an extension of his Eat Out to Help Out scheme in targeted areas – namely, commercial districts where coffee and sandwich shops are still suffering from a dramatic drop in footfall.
It seems only five minutes ago that coffee shops were being damned for taking over the High Street, pushing out all the gentleman’s outfitters, greengrocers and all the old-style sandwich shops full of seeded baps and steel trays of sliced tomato. Costa, Starbucks, Pret – they were seen as a menace, destroying the local character by importing their homogenised menus of flat whites, paninis and flapjacks. Yet suddenly they are a national treasure which must be protected through government largesse and coercion on office workers.
It was the same with chain-multiple shoe shops, Waterstones-like book shops, mobile phone shops and estate agents. First, they were accused of ripping the soul out of our town centres – and then, a few years later, attacked when they started to retreat and shut up shop. Surely the libertarian in Boris must be telling Sunak: look, save for Number 10 staff, it’s none of my business how employees and employers want to organise their working practices. If they want to come back to the office, great, and if they want to explore a future of greater home working, that’s fine too.
I don’t think we really need to worry about Central London becoming a ghost town for long. No sooner will Pret have closed its doors than some other business will move in. As for the vacant offices, the government has for years been encouraging the conversion of office space to residential space in order to relieve the housing shortage. It has changed planning laws to make it easier to do this. And yet, suddenly, now that a significant tranche of office space looks like become surplus to requirements, the PM and Chancellor launch a ‘save the office’ campaign. Talk about joined-up government.
The government should keep its nose out of commercial decisions and limit itself to creating the free market conditions in which businesses can make their own decisions on where to trade, how to trade and how to organise their working practices. Rather than try to prop up the coffee shop industry, ministers should concentrate on stopping making life needlessly difficult for the many businesses which have been harmed by lockdown.
No-one enjoys watching people lose their jobs, but the losses at Pret are pretty insignificant compared with the high-skilled jobs at risk in the aviation industry. They are being undermined by the government’s increasingly bizarre rules on quarantine, moving countries on and off the list of air bridges at whim. There are quite a few people who work in branches of Pret and Costa at Heathrow and Gatwick. They don’t need a bailout or a Prime Ministerial campaign to save them, just the easing of rules which are making it hell for anyone to travel anywhere.