Working from home: a Sidmouth perspective

“I see WFH as quite a positive development.”

“Places like Sidmouth might even benefit from an exodus of WFH types from the cities.”

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Smaller towns and cities are seeing more people return to offices – but not very much:

No rise in workers in UK city centres despite back-to-office plea | Business | The Guardian

Looking at the details of a study just out from the think tank, Centre for Cities:

  • More people are returning to work to Exeter (26%) compared to the larger Bristol (18%).
  • It’s the seaside resorts which are doing the best when it comes to ‘footfall’ and ‘spend’: those employed in the hospitality industry have clearly been going back to work in such areas, which would also be the case for towns on the coast in Devon.

High streets recovery tracker | Centre for Cities

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We have to conclude, then, that office work in offices is becoming a thing of the past – across the board, whether small town or large city:

Principality Building Society boss says home working ‘here to stay’ – BBC News

Bank of England warns mass return to UK offices ‘not possible’ | Business | The Guardian

Companies ready to defy Boris Johnson’s planned return to work | Business | The Guardian

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And with new regulations just announced, it is clear that people will prefer to work from home:

Fears new lockdown rules may be a setback for call to return to the office | Daily Mail Online

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Looking at the longer-term effect on smaller towns such as Sidmouth, it could well be of benefit – with people both staying at home and moving long-term into the country:

Working from home: reviving town life – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Decentralization and technology-enabled home working – Vision Group for Sidmouth

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Here is a personal account from a Sidmouth correspondent, which supports most of these same observations:

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I think Working From Home is one of the most interesting aspects of the long term economic impact of the virus.    There are many changes that will happen as we emerge from the biggest crash in history, but I think that patterns and especially locations of working will be amongst the biggest.

Many people enjoy working in an office environment – they enjoy the camaraderie and banter, and they like the separation of work from home.   Once they leave the workplace, all the issues of the day can be quickly forgotten.    

Plus, of course, offices are full of equipment and resources – files and computers, etc., but those are declining.   There are no longer any typewriters, and there is a small printer rather than an enormous photocopier.    

Perhaps most dramatically, there are no secretaries, or very few. A friend of mine used to work in a large legal firm with 36 partners. They each had a secretary and several had two. When he left a couple of years ago, the 36 partners shared only three secretaries.

So a lot of people can now work from home, or can work from much smaller premises.

Another friend reminisced about when she worked at NatWest in Sidmouth. That was in the 1980s and NatWest had 30 staff. Before they closed a couple of years ago, they were down to five. It wasn’t just that they no longer felt they needed a presence in our High Street:  it was also because they were operating from premises that were far too large.

At one point in Sidmouth there were 14 estate agents – there are now four.

My favourite illustration of the reduction in local business activity is the number of petrol stations. When I passed my driving test there were 23 petrol outlets in the Sid Valley and Newton Poppleford – now there is one. There were three butchers in Sidford. Goodness knows how many staff were employed by the Sidmouth Herald when they operated from Caxton House in East Street, but it must have been 15 or 20 at least.

And we had many more hotels forty or fifty years ago. Since the mid-1960s we have lost the Abbeydale, Brinkburn, Westbourne, Redlands, Byes Links, Stanhope, Sussex, Torbay, Southernhay, Green Gables, Fortfield, Wyndham House, Faulkner, Devoran, Royal London, Brownlands, Meadhurst , Salcombe Hill House and now Sidholme Hotels. I’m sure I have forgotten a few more. They had some foreign staff, but most of the employees were local. And how could I forget the closure of the Knowle Hotel!

And we’ve lost pubs:  the Ship, Dove, Horse and Groom, Masons, and now the Marine.  Plus the Royal Oak in Sidbury.   And, of course, our nightclub.

There were, of course, far fewer charity shops and coffee shops:  they have both increased in number very much. And the vast majority of retail shops then were independently owned. Usually, they owned the freehold of the property:  leases were quite rare until the 1980s.

Getting back to WFH, this is looking like it might impact more in cities than in towns. People are not going to want to commute long distances on crowded buses and trains, or pay £5000+ for a season ticket. Or drive at 8mph as they do in London and Exeter.  The offices are extremely expensive to rent in places like Central London. I see no reason for the government to be encouraging people back to such a work environment. The health and environmental benefits of WFH are obvious.

Places like Sidmouth might even benefit from an exodus of WFH types from the cities. By the sea, beautiful environs, safe for the kids, etc. Cheap offices available if some kind of bricks and mortar presence is required. We might see an influx of rat race escapees.

I’m told that the average age in Sidmouth fell ( albeit from a very high number ) at the last census. Sidmouth is getting younger. This was discussed at the time, and I think the general view is that it was due to younger families with computer-based jobs coming to the town. On that subject, it seems to me that visitors to our town are getting younger, judging by the people on the Esplanade. 

I see WFH as quite a positive development.

The big problem will come if and when the WFH jobs are shifted abroad…

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photo: HD wallpaper: Sunset Home Office Working with Laptop on the Garden, designer | Wallpaper Flare

   
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