For my family in the Midlands, it's hard to comprehend why I'd choose to live in London. It's a place where I have no prospect of buying a round for less than a tenner, let alone ever owning my home. "This is where all the creative and media jobs are," I used to shrug whenever they asked. This week, as corporate and creative industries that are overwhelmingly based in London shift to working from home for the foreseeable future due to coronavirus, many people are asking themselves the same question. If all our meetings can actually be emails and conference calls, then what are we actually all doing in the capital?
Remote working is set to expose more than a few fallacies about our working life. At one end of the spectrum, it might lift the veil on the nature of white-collar work itself. Manual workers and non-office-based professionals are risking the lives of their loved ones to continue working while others – like me – are quickly able to dismantle and digitise our office cultures. As anthropologist David Graeber's 2018 book Bullshit Jobs pointed out, a huge amount of our economy is predicated on the illusion that many people have to come into an office from 9 AM to 5 PM every day in order to create content, send messages, and schedule social media posts.
Or, as Twitter user @MikiZarzycki put it for the coronavirus era: "Everyone with a fake job gets to stay home and get paid to drop funny GIFs into Slack, everyone with a real job has to be a frontline pandemic worker or get fired."
On a smaller scale, this crisis also reveals that not every person or company in the creative industries truly needs to be based in London. Over the last decade under Tory rule, austerity has had a devastating impact all over the country, but areas outside the capital have been particularly neglected. The UK2070 Commission last year declared the UK “one of the most regionally unbalanced countries in the industrialised world”.
This pattern of regional neglect has only further deepened a cultural divide that has been building for generations, with the media, music, art, publishing and fashion all being notoriously London-centric industries. Could this period of quarantine serve as a catalyst for the city losing its iron grip on the country's young professionals?
For Brendan Walsh, who works in international marketing at Universal Music, the newly enforced coronavirus-related rules have only reaffirmed how little time he already spends in his London office. He frequently travels for work, uses his laptop for work and dials into meetings remotely. Walsh is from the Midlands too, and moved to London to work in the music industry after being advised by bosses that it was where all the music jobs are.
They weren't wrong, he says. London is the centre of music in the UK because of "the pure size of the market" – it's where all major gigs and networking events take place. It's impossible to get the benefit of concerts and networking if you work entirely remotely – but for the rest, Walsh says, "it's just emails and phone calls!"
ClicknClear founder Chantal Epp says this is exactly why she decided to make her music tech start-up work remotely. Chantal is based in London, but her five employees are based around the country. Not having an office dramatically cuts the cost of starting a business. "I saw it as an opportunity," she explains. "Being open to hiring anyone in the UK or the world opens up the talent pool." Is she planning to leave London herself? "100 percent," she says. "I actually don't know why I'm still here!"
There have long been calls for the insular world of publishing to widen its reach beyond the capital. One way to embed the industry in communities around the UK might be to consider remote workers or offices in different cities. University lecturer Cat Mitchell is one of many people who tried the "moving to London" thing and found that it wasn't for her, back in 2014. As a result, she had to give up on her dream career in publishing after landing a job at Penguin.
In her final year of working in London, she moved to Hemel Hempstead. "Trains were a nightmare, and I was often stranded," she says. "Added to this, I have fibromyalgia, and travel complications became too much. Most stations didn't have step-free access, and the amount of walking and standing I needed to do every day just wasn't sustainable."
Now working in Derby, Cat says that being outside London is cheaper, less stressful, and better for pain management. "I used to have around two hours in the evening after I'd got home from my London job, now I usually get around five,” she says.
Firgas Esack, a publicist for Hoxby based in the Norfolk countryside, also emphasises how important leaving London has been for her mental health. She was drawn to London because "when I was a teenager it felt like the epicentre for 'cool' PR", but as she and her partner's family expanded, they moved away. "The broadband here is quicker," she enthuses. "And we never realised how dirty London was – I’ve always believed that fresh air is the cure for everything."
It's clear that for many, remote working is a preferable solution to having to work full-time in London – whether that's because you're economically disadvantaged, disabled or have a chronic illness, have children, or you simply prefer not to breathe air that's literally as bad for you as smoking. "Remote workers are regenerating rural areas by demanding better broadband, better coffee shops, and shopping locally," Firgas says, nodding to the knock-on effect that moving some of the creative industries out of London could have on other industries. "The need for presenteeism in an office is a ball and chain which shouldn’t be attached to any modern day job description."
Walsh notes that the music industry in other countries, like Germany and the US, already functions with multiple epicentres, rather than just one. "I’d also love to see UMG and other bigger companies look further north for talent, not just in bands but in employees," he says. As for the publishing industry, Mitchell believes it would be massively improved by taking more chances on workers in other areas of the country, and trusting them to work from home. "This would help with regional diversity, but also would help people with disabilities or chronic health conditions like myself," she notes. "The technology is there for it – we just need habits and attitudes to change."
If there's ever been a time for shifting cultural ideas about work, now might just be it.