In the shadow of the old Spode pottery works, in Stoke-on-Trent, something is stirring. Royals once dined off the fine china plates manufactured here, but the factory itself closed well over a decade ago, when its parent company went bust in the banking crash. Now, where it once stood, a very different way of working is taking shape.
The Potbank site includes a cafe, a hotel and flexible office spaces built for a more rootless, hot-desking, post-pandemic culture emerging as “the world of work changes to embrace working from home”, according to Jeff Nash, director of the company that owns the scheme.
There is ambitious talk of filling the grand old town halls and listed warehouses left over from the area’s glory days with hi-tech startups with much more flexible working cultures: video game designers, AI and robotics firms whose processes are transforming the ceramics still made here. “Silicon Stoke” is wooing creative media graduates from the town’s own university, but also young artists seeking cheap overheads and the kind of quirky, gritty, post-industrial vibe that cities like Manchester had 30 years ago. Unlike those who used to clock on at the Spode factory, with fast enough broadband they can work from anywhere: why pay a fortune to live in the gentrified big city?
This story doesn’t fit stale cliches about “red wall” towns, and still less does it fit the prime minister’s stubborn insistence on everyone returning to a conventional office. But it helps explain why Stoke – where the cabinet held an awayday last week – is Britain’s third biggest growth area for remote and flexible jobs, according to a study led by the recruiters Indeed and video conferencing platform Zoom, which should turn lazy political arguments on their heads.
Their league table of post-pandemic “Zoom towns” – places where adverts for jobs that can be worked flexibly or at least partly from home have more than trebled since 2020 – found 10 out of 25 overlapped with red-wall areas, with Tory-held Stoke and Burnley beaten only by the seaside town of Worthing. So much for home working being a “middle-class remainer cult”, as the Telegraph declared, for people who spent lockdown buying puppies and Pelotons.
When Boris Johnson says that in his experience home working involves too much “walking very slowly to the fridge, hacking off a small piece of cheese” and then forgetting what you were actually doing; or Jacob Rees-Mogg tours Whitehall offices leaving pointed “sorry you were out when I visited” messages at empty desks, the message is that ordinary workers don’t have such perks, and neither should a hated elite. This isn’t levelling up but punching up, stoking envy instead of figuring out how everyone can enjoy a happier working life – which in jobs that can’t be done from home may mean other forms of flexibility instead, such as part-time hours or the small changes that make family life possible. But it’s also flatly at odds with reality.
The Office for National Statistics predicts that 57% of workers will work at least partly from home by this autumn, while two-thirds of Britons already work flexibly in some way. The world is moving on regardless of politicians shouting into the wind, and while the owners of fast-emptying glass towers in the City may be dismayed, in places such as Stoke and Barnsley and Middlesbrough, it’s potentially revolutionary.
What sucks the life from smaller towns is young people moving away for better jobs. But would more choose to stay close to their roots, in places where houses are still cheap and they have family nearby to help with the kids, if remote working for at least part of the week let them tap into big-city opportunities without having to up sticks? More home working means less commuting, putting money back into hard-pressed pockets; it breathes life back into struggling local high streets too, drawing new people in.
In Grimsby, the tech entrepreneur Jason Stockwood – who was born in the town and recently bought its football club – has a vision for turning the place into a pool of expert digital remote workers, capable of taking jobs in London without having to actually live there. Across the Humber estuary, Hull is rebranding itself as the capital of co-working hubs – places where remote workers can hire desk space and congregate for a bit of creative inspiration.
For office life is not dead yet. Rees-Mogg is right that people still need to bounce ideas off each other, learn from more experienced colleagues, and indeed just get out of the house. But they don’t need to be there five days a week to do it, which is why a hybrid working week is becoming the new norm. CEOs like the savings on office costs (did nobody tell Rees-Mogg that desks are empty because Whitehall has been encouraging civil servants to work from home for a decade to save money?), and the chance to hire beyond the shrinking pool of people who can afford to move to London.
Beneath the skin of politics, where nobody can see it, there is some practical thinking going on. Next month the Tory thinktank Onward will host a panel event with the 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 begun a review of the future of work commissioned by Downing Street, which will consider how remote working could change the way Britons feel about where we live. In private many Tories sympathise with the reported view of the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, that counting bums on office seats has “a whiff of something Dickensian” about it: why not measure what people actually do, rather than where they’re sitting? And Stoke’s renaissance has undoubtedly relied on government levelling-up funds and money for fast broadband.
Yet, in its public messaging at least, the supposed party of business lags behind business itself. Proposals to expand flexible working were ditched from last week’s Queen’s speech, while Rees-Mogg harrumphs about how working from home on a Monday or Friday indicates “not a serious attitude to work”. This is the toxic politics of nostalgia, fetishising the past at the expense of those whose lives could be transformed by moving on.
Remote working isn’t a magic bullet to solve the red wall’s ills; and, like all big economic shifts, this one will have winners and losers. But that’s all the more reason for ministers to stop fighting change and start shaping it for the public good. For, as all post-industrial towns know, if you don’t go out and meet the future, eventually it simply moves on without you.