ARE BRICKS AND MORTAR NO LONGER NEEDED IN THE WORKSPACE?
Bricks and mortar ended for me on March 16, 2020, when we scrambled to catch a flight out of London and return to Texas considering the U.S. Covid border closures. We never returned to our apartment or our office. As oil prices plummeted into a negative category, financial survival was the paramount need rather than an efficient office. We made it through that awful period by raising some additional equity and taking pictures off the walls. We have not returned to the traditional office environment though we have a small meeting facility in London as some folks are more efficient by getting together periodically. As our core business is in Vietnam and Egypt, those destinations are higher priorities. Strangely, we were recently in Bangkok having dinner with a prominent lawyer and good friend there who complained bitterly about not being able to motivate his lawyers to return to their office. In fact, I had not spent much time in a real office for many years given our far-flung operations.
The Economist recently published an article entitled The Open Questions of Hybrid Working highlighting the profound change in white-collar working patterns because of Covid quarantines. Moreover, new work descriptions may become an integral part of the office dialect in 2023 such as “productivity paranoia” – an affliction of home workers afraid of being seen as shirkers, and bosses afraid that home workers are indeed shirking. During the deep pandemic period with a reliance on Zoom calls to interact with fellow workers, many spouses and special others did not realize they were visible to the world when they passed in front of their partner’s computer. Another potential workplace term in 2023 is “TWaT city” – one where many commuters travel to the office only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. A friend who works for a major U.S. bank has been instructed to accept “TWaT city” though I expect neither he nor his management have made the connection to the acronym.
As the image below illustrates, the symbolic office water cooler represents the office with the guy in his bunny slippers working from home and the lady properly dressed in the office. Many times, on Zoom calls, I only ensured that my clothing above the waist was proper as that is all that is captured in a one-person call. It is hard to imagine suits will become prevalent in offices anytime soon. Selling suits was the way I paid my way through college. I would have starved to death in today’s world.
The Economist graph below reflects retail pre-pandemic retail visits equal to 100 in Europe compared to early fall in 2022 in log scales. The big red dot is Istanbul which has the same level of retail visits in today’s world as compared to the pre-pandemic period. The far-right red dot below Istanbul is Greater London which is the worst retail visit performer in the 25 European countries urban centers. Whereas, weekend subway passenger numbers are creeping back to pre-covid norms, fewer people are entering congested cities to shop. One explanation to the uptick in weekend subway traffic is the strong resurgence in professional sports attendance. On the other hand, in cities such as London and New York, weekday subways are 30-40% quieter. Clearly, cities have become less connected to work.
Perhaps this development is a sound one as there will be fewer unnecessary journeys into offices when the work can be efficiently conducted remotely. More environmentally friendly use of buildings and fewer skyscrapers is a pleasant side effect to reduce energy consumption and, perhaps, save the planet. Maybe the pandemic occurred in the nick of time to have an impact on our energy consumption.
My lawyer friend in Bangkok may be reading this blog. He told Joey that he was very concerned about my personal safety given things I have written in the past about miserable and corrupt governments around the world. I think he will find this blog safe though somewhat upsetting to him if “TWaT city” becomes a common practice. Moreover, he should know I never return to those countries I have pillared, and I live on a large ranch in Texas with armed caballeros so he should not have any concerns regarding my safety.
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