Prior to the lockdown, Canterbury City Council caused dismay among local residents by announcing it would be spending £12 million on new offices. The current offices in Military Road have been deemed inappropriate due to their size and layout.
Rather than occupy the empty space above the Whitefrairs shopping centre – which is already owned by the council and costing taxpayers’ money to keep empty – the Tories, backed by Labour councillors – voted to develop new state-of-the-art replacement offices on the Wincheap Industrial Estate.
Critics have pondered how the council can justify spending millions on new digs when it hasn’t stumped up to build any new council houses for years – though that’s a question for another day.
But there could be an even easier and cheaper solution. The council could take its lead from a tech giant.
Today, Twitter announced that from now on its staff could work from home “forever”. Twitter will still maintain office space, but on the back of a successful working from home trial, staff will have the option to make their new working arrangement permanent.
Twitter said: “The past few months have proven we can make that work. So, if our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen.”
If the council allowed its staff to do the same, and only maintained a small infrastructure for meeting rooms and face-to-face appointments, there would be no need for giant new offices.
There is ample space above Whitefriars to house a slimmed-down customer-facing staff, and there may well be a few more vacant units as the recession begins to bite.
Fewer staff coming into the office would mean less traffic around the ring road. It would mean less pollution. It would mean the old offices could be sold off and the proceeds put towards new social housing – or plugging the black hole in the council’s finances.
Some will argue that it wouldn’t work, and that staff need to be present on site. Well, a decade ago, I used to work in the council’s communications team. I can tell you for a fact it would work fine.
The call centre telephone lines can be diverted to mobiles or home landlines. Outgoing calls can be made by Skype or VOIP services, preventing the staff member’s phone number becoming public.
Whether it’s planning, licensing, environmental health, or managing the civic team, 90% of the work is done from behind a computer. Most meetings can be done by video conferencing, and the few that can’t could be held in the remaining space maintained by the council.
After all, this is what’s happening at the moment during lockdown.
Historically the biggest barrier to widespread homeworking is the employer’s distrust of the employee. Despite studies showing that people working from home tend to be more productive, suffer less absenteeism, and are generally happier in their jobs, there is an ingrained prejudice among some managers that ‘working from home’ means lying in bed all day watching Netflix.
As a manager myself, I’ve found that a lazy staff member is perfectly able to waste plenty of time online shopping and checking social media from the office. Working from home puts more of an impetus on workers to demonstrate that they are in fact being productive – which is why studies show people working from home often perform better.
So, here’s my advice to Canterbury City Council. Cancel your plans for new offices. Sell the existing site or develop it into social housing. Set up a basic provision for meeting rooms and front desk staff in the Whitefriars shopping centre, and allow your staff to work from home from now on.
You’ll save millions, you’ll help achieve your carbon emission reduction targets, you’ll ease city centre congestion, and you’ll have a happier workforce with a better work life balance.