I have not been in the City Centre since February and to be honest, I have no desire to rush back anytime soon. Even before the pandemic, it was not a great experience – noisy, dirty, lots of traffic, a harsh natureless environment, a notable increase in beggars and addicts. It is a pity because having a wander around the city centre was an activity that many of us grew up on. But lately, it has lost its attraction.
Of course, Covid-19 has made the situation a hundred times worse. The Belfast Chamber of Commerce has estimated only 5% of workers are back at work in the City Centre. Diane Dodds has appealed to the Civil Service to return to their offices to save the economy, to which the general response of the workers seems to be, “no thanks, we are ok at home.” Never mind getting Covid, staff are in no rush to get back to sitting in 2-3 hour commutes just to stop Gregg’s and Costa Coffee going to the wall.
So the poor old city centre is a bit of ghost town these days. Where are all the people? Well, they have not disappeared into the ether, they are all busy filling the cafes and shops of the rest of Northern Ireland.
People working from home in Bangor, Magherafelt, Omagh, Rostrevor etc. have found that with all the time and money they have saved not commuting they can go out to their local cafes and shops. They can take wee breaks to stroll through their lovely local parks and amenities.
Let me give you a vision of perfect work-life balance. You live in Rostrevor. You do a few hour’s work in the morning from home. It is a nice day so for lunch, you take a walk in Kilbroney Park where you meet a friend for lunch in Synge & Byrne cafe. You have a nice lunch and a chat all while enjoying the spectacular view. The photo that accompanies this post is a photo I took of the actual view from the cafe. Could there be a more lovely way to live? It is Lou Reed levels of a perfect day.
For decades the rest of Northern Ireland has looked enviously as Belfast seemed to get all the investment and attention. Now Covid is acting like a Marxist Santa redistributing wealth to all the boys and girls of Northern Ireland.
Many people think once this is all over, things will go back to the way they were before. But they will not. Once people have tasted freedom, it will be hard getting them back into captivity. Who in their right mind would look forward to sitting in traffic for hours to go and sit all day in a noisy, cramped open-plan office?
Instead, you will have hybrid work. People will work from home a few days a week and come into the office for meetings and catchups. The civil servants will discover they can work just as well if not better from their homes or regional offices. Practically every town in Northern Ireland has a benefits office or other similar government building. These offices could be easily modified to support hot desking by local workers.
There is a skills shortage. Flexible working will become an important job benefit for prospective employees. Those employers who do not offer flexibility will lose out. Furthermore, employers are discovering that productivity can increase when people work from home. There are fewer distractions so you get more done. Combine this with cost savings on rent, and management will soon decide that flexible working is a real money saver. Some companies might decide to go completely virtual and use the money they save on rent to pay for regular meetups. Once a week you could hire a co-working space for the morning to discuss projects before treating everyone to a free lunch where they can catch up with their colleagues.
The definition of madness is spending hours commuting to an office to phone and email people who have also spent hours commuting to their offices. If your work involves staring at a screen all day you can quite easily stare at it in the comfort of your own house.
“Free the people!” should be the new cross-community rallying cry. Free the people to walk their kids to school. Free the people to enjoy high-speed broadband anywhere in Northern Ireland. Free the people to eat in their local cafes and shop in their local shops. Free the people to walk in their local parks, forests and beaches. Free the people to work how they want to. Free the people to spend quality time with their friends and families.
We can never go back to the old ways again, and nor should we want to.
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”
― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
This post is part of our #TheReset series in association with Ulster Bank
If you would like to get involved in #TheReset, either as an individual or as part of an organisation, please do get in touch by emailing us at [email protected] or [email protected] with an idea for inclusion in a range of articles or events over September and October.
I help to manage Slugger by taking care of the site as well as running our live events. My background is in business, marketing and IT. My politics tend towards middle-of-the-road pragmatism, I am not a member of any political party. Oddly for a member of the Slugger team, I am not that interested in daily politics, preferring to write about big ideas in society. When not stuck in front of a screen, I am a parkrun Run Director.