Are deserted streets going to be come a permanent feature of city centres?David Sharp, Getty Images

It is becoming very apparent that the impact of reduced commuting to the city centre has hit those who are the lowest paid the hardest. Pret is having to cut over 1,000 jobs, directly citing one of the reasons as “lower footfall” in their cafes. Whilst it can be pretty safely argued that the short-term effects of an uptake in remote working have hurt shift-workers and minimum wage employees in the service industry the most, the long-term effects could actually act towards equalising the economy in favour of lower socio-economic groups as well as immigrants, single parents, and other people disadvantaged in the UK job market.

Refugees and immigrants based in the UK can benefit from the more globalized economy produced by remote working. Newcomers to the UK could have the option to work virtually for companies based abroad, for example their home country, that use familiar languages and who better recognise the qualifications that they currently have. A report from the University of Sussex finds that the primary barrier to employment for refugees in the UK is a lack of language skills. A very close second is the fact that foreign qualifications are not as recognised in the UK job market. Highly educated immigrants are less likely to have jobs than their native counterparts because qualifications and work experience gained abroad are widely undervalued.

“Could it be that this knock to the industry will actually benefit its minimum wage workers in the long run?”

While the lack of income is obviously a major issue to someone who has recently moved to the UK, being unemployed can also be detrimental when trying to integrate into a new community. Remote working can lead to higher pay and better job satisfaction for both refugees and immigrants as they are more likely to find employment that better suits their skills and experience. But the issue is not fixed directly – an immigrant working for a company based in their country of origin has obviously not broken into the UK job market. It could, however, generate a stable source of income that would provide an increased time margin to get their current qualifications recognised and to find a job based in the UK.

Immigrants may also find it difficult to move to a city where a job that suits their skills is located due to high rents in the city centre. It’s not only immigrant-workers who are disadvantaged because of high rent prices in the city, however. Student interns and minimum wage workers are in a similar position. Unpaid internships are often closed off to those who cannot afford the rent, but these opportunities may be less limited if they don’t have to live in the city. Similarly, minimum wage employees working in London can’t afford to live in the city in which they work, as is made evident by the disparity between the real London living wage – £10.75 an hour – and the minimum wage, a much lower £8.72 an hour.

On the employers’ side of the coin there is a direct parallel. Start-ups not being able to afford office rent prices, or the fact that only large coffee-shop chains can afford the high rent costs of business premises in the city centre mean that success in many industries is more easily attainable by already-established, wealthy companies rather than local or family-run businesses. The high rent for businesses in the city coupled with the much lower post-pandemic levels of demand now has even the largest service industry chains on the ropes. Pret having to lay off workers will most likely be, unfortunately, the first of many similar instances as the economy tries to recover.

Could it be that this knock to the industry will actually benefit its minimum wage workers in the long run? The attraction of lower rent prices in rural areas and an increasing pool of laid-off service industry workers could be enough incentive for new, non-chain businesses to meet the relocated demand from remote workers who are no longer spending their money in the city centre. Coffee shops, hairdressers, dry cleaners are still all going to be needed, but now more people are living outside of big cities, the playing field has been levelled and family-run businesses can more easily challenge the magnates that dominated the inner city.

“If we recognise the immediate hardship faced by those who are losing out, and work to combat its associated negative aspects, remote working could be key in creating a fairer economy in the future”

Fortunately the vague hopes that things could change “in the long-term” aren’t the only counterweights to balance out the short-term gloom; more immediate positive effects are also possible. Disabled people who find it hard to commute to work or even access their own office building can see benefits right away: not having to leave the house, or travelling to much nearer and more accessible co-working spaces such as libraries. Those who cannot afford a car or public transport can also have greater access to workplaces to which they otherwise would not due to travel restrictions.

Stay-at-home parents and in particular single mothers who have had to sacrifice a career in order to look after their children, are another group who can seriously benefit from more remote working options. Those who would like to leave work to look after their children will have a broader range of options if more companies start offering remote working positions. Parents are often limited to specific times they can go to work, or may not be able to leave the home at all if their children are very young. Remote working could therefore be especially vital to those who previously had to choose between looking after their children and going to work to provide needed income, like single mothers. A recent study also suggests that leaving work to look after children is even more detrimental to your career than if you had been made redundant. The study found that mothers who leave their work for 18 months to look after their children are half as likely to get a callback after sending out a CV compared to women who had been unemployed for the same amount of time due to being laid-off from their previous job. The secondary benefit, then, from stay-at-home parents working remotely part-time whilst looking after children is the decrease or elimination of the gap in employment which can reduce the bias against them upon trying to re-enter the job market full-time.


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It is by no means a situation in which there are no losers. As previously mentioned, service industry workers currently being laid-off are not in a good position. If it becomes the industry standard, remote working could also have the opposite effect on the lowest socio-economic groups who do not have space in their homes to work or who live in worse-off areas with a lack of access to libraries and other co-working spaces. It could also disadvantage more senior citizens who may be less technologically proficient or may struggle with the IT skills required to support remote working. Remote working is also not a fix for discrimination against hiring certain groups – for example, it shouldn’t be the case that because immigrants have the option to work for companies abroad, they should have to do so because of the discrimination against them in the UK job market. If we recognise the immediate hardship faced by those who are losing out, and work to combat its associated negative aspects, remote working could be key in creating a fairer economy in the future.

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