IIn the shadow of the old Spode pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, something is stirring. Members of the royal family once ate from the fine china plates made here, but the factory itself closed over a decade ago when its parent company went bankrupt in the banking crash. Today, where it once stood, a very different way of working is taking shape.
According to Jeff Nash, director of the company that owns the plan.
There are ambitious talks to fill the grand old town halls and listed warehouses left over from the region’s glory days with high-tech startups with much more flexible work cultures: video game designers, corporate of AI and robotics whose processes are transforming the ceramics still made here. . ‘Silicon Stoke’ is courting creative media graduates from the city’s university, but also young artists looking for cheap overhead and the kind of quirky, gritty, post-industrial vibe that cities like Manchester used to have 30 years ago. Unlike those who used to clock in at the Spode factory, with fairly fast broadband they can work from anywhere: why pay a fortune to live in the gentrified big city?
This story doesn’t fit the outdated clichés of ‘red-walled’ cities, let alone the Prime Minister’s stubborn insistence that everyone return to a conventional office. But it helps explain why Stoke – where the firm held a day off last week – is Britain’s third-biggest growth area for remote and flexible jobs, according to research by recruiters Indeed. and video conferencing platform Zoom, which should turn lazy political arguments on their heads.
Their league table of post-pandemic “Zoom cities” – places where job postings that can be flexibly worked or at least partly from home have more than tripled since 2020 – found that 10 out of 25 overlapped with areas of red walls, with Tory-held Stoke and Burnley beaten only by the seaside town of Worthing. Too bad for working from home being a “cult of middle-class leftovers”, as the Telegraph put it, for people who spent lockdown buying puppies and Pelotons.
When Boris Johnson says that in his experience working from home involves too much of ‘walking very slowly to the fridge, cutting a little piece of cheese’ and then forgetting what you were actually doing; or Jacob Rees-Mogg visits offices in Whitehall leaving ‘sorry you’re away on my visit’ messages on empty desks, the message is that ordinary working people have no such benefits, and a hated elite no more. It’s not about raising the bar, it’s about stepping up, fueling envy instead of figuring out how everyone can enjoy a happier working life – which, in jobs that can’t not be done from home, may mean other forms of flexibility instead, such as part-time hours or small changes that make family life possible. But it is also squarely at odds with reality.
The Office for National Statistics predicts that 57% of workers will be working at least partly from home by this autumn, while two-thirds of Britons are already working flexibly in one way or another. The world is moving independently of politicians shouting in the wind, and while owners of fast-draining glass towers in the city may be appalled, in places like Stoke and Barnsley and Middlesbrough it’s potentially revolutionary.
What eats away at small town life are young people leaving for better jobs. But would they prefer to stay close to their roots, in places where houses are still cheap and where they have family nearby to help with the children, if working remotely for at least part of the week allowed them? to take advantage of the opportunities of the big cities without having to stick? More working from home means less commuting, which puts money back in hard-pressed pockets; it also brings struggling local shopping streets back to life, attracting new people.
In Grimsby, tech entrepreneur Jason Stockwood – who was born in the town and recently bought his football club – has a vision of turning the place into a pool of digitally savvy remote workers able to take jobs in London without having to live there. . Across the Humber estuary, Hull is rebranding itself as the capital of coworking hubs – places where remote workers can rent office space and congregate for a bit of creative inspiration.
Because office life isn’t dead yet. Rees-Mogg is right that people still need to brainstorm, learn from more experienced colleagues, and even get out of their homes. But they don’t have to be there five days a week to do so, which is why a hybrid workweek is becoming the new norm. CEOs love savings on office costs (has anyone told Rees-Mogg that offices are empty because Whitehall has been encouraging civil servants to work from home for a decade to save money?), and the possibility to hire beyond the shrinking pool of people who can afford to move to London.
Under the skin of politics, where no one can see it, there is practical thinking going on. Next month, the Conservative think tank Onward will host a roundtable with Small Business Minister Paul Scully on how remote working could help red-wall economies grow. Matt Warman, the Tory MP and former digital minister, has just started a review of the future of work commissioned by Downing Street, which will look at how remote working could change the way Britons think about where we live . Privately, many Tories sympathize with Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’ reported view that counting bums on office chairs has ‘a little Dickensian flair’: why not measure what people do actually, rather than where they are sitting? And Stoke’s revival has undoubtedly relied on government leveling funds and money for fast broadband.
Yet, in its public messaging at least, the supposed business party is lagging behind the businesses themselves. Proposals to extend flexible working were dropped in last week’s Queen’s Speech, while Rees-Mogg insists working from home on a Monday or Friday indicates ‘not a serious attitude to work’ . It’s the toxic politics of nostalgia, fetishizing the past at the expense of those whose lives could be transformed by moving on.
Telecommuting is not a magic bullet to solve the ills of the red wall; and, like all great economic changes, this one will have winners and losers. But it’s all the more reason for ministers to stop fighting change and start shaping it for the public good. Because, as all post-industrial cities know, if you don’t meet the future, it will simply move on without you.