MUSICAL CHAIRS

By: Stuart White 17-08-2020

Categories:HRMC Articles written by Managing Director, Stuart White,

In 1961 a Broadway musical called Tenderloin premiéred,  based on a novel of the same name by Samuel Hopkins.  The storyline revolved around a fictional red-light district  in West Manhattan named ‘Tenderloin and a reforming minister called the Reverend Brock determined to close down the district’s brothels , along with the corrupt cops and government officials who are doing very nicely from the illegal money collected from the brothel madams.  One of the musical’s hit songs was entitled ‘How The Money Changes Hands’, comprising a précis of basic economics and the lyrics go like this:

Oh it’s grand how the money changes hands
Oh it’s grand how the money changes hands
Everybody’s happy, that’s the way she stands
Just as long as the money changes hands

You’ve got to pay the dentist for a tooth he’s going to yank, 
So you go and get some money from the bank
So you pay the dentist and he pays the landlord 
The landlord pays the grocer, the grocer pays the farmer
The farmer pays the banker, the banker spends it here

Chorus

You  get so much enjoyment from a bottle of champagne
That it’s fun to throw your money down the drain
So you pay the waiter and he pays the boss….

Well, you get the idea.   Whatever our means of employment, we earn our money and it pays the bills.  That bill-paying then provides the income for countless other people and businesses – shopkeepers, private schools, garages, petrol stations, hairdressers, manicurists, street vendors etc. etc.  As the Compère in another musical, Cabaret, sings ‘Money makes the world go round, that clinking, clanking sound’!

But this is not a dissertation on Broadway economics, it’s real life and without enough money changing hands and making the world go round, we are all in dire straits.  This week the UK officially slid into recession, the first time since 2009.  Of course this was inevitable – a near 4-month Lockdown, government handouts right, left and centre on borrowed funds and countless businesses either brought down or massively disaffected.  For British high streets, already under pressure pre-Covid from online competition and closures through exorbitant rents and business rates,  the Lockdown was the final straw and it is impossible to see the country’s retail areas ever returning to anything like healthy.  And this is not to mention the on-going shutdown of the theatres,  travel restrictions, squeezing airlines and hotels into bankruptcy and a myriad other industries which may never recover.  It all comes down to the old adage of ‘bums on seats’, both literally and figuratively.  Without punters, the leisure industry is doomed.

Even something that appeared to be positive has turned out to have negative overtones, that of distance working.  On paper it seemed a perfect solution.  After all, many companies were already encouraging their employees to work from home or on the hoof to save on costly rental overheads.   A slimmed-down staff and a  compact physical office presence made for a healthier, fitter business model whilst staff saved on travel costs and ancillary expenditure such as lunches, snacks and drinks. Everybody wins, surely?  Well yes and no.

New research show that workers in the UK are returning to their offices at a far slower pace than those in other European countries.  Only 34% of UK employees have gone back to the office, lagging behind the rest of Europe which averages 68%, AlphaWise, the research arm of US bank Morgan Stanley, has found.  In particular, Germany, Italy and Spain have seen return rates of around three-quarters, while France leads the way on 83%.  UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson formally scrapped the government’s work from home advice last week and is encouraging employers to begin bringing staff back yes as the Daily Mail puts it, the UK is the “scared man of Europe” and The Times says the figures “will be a concern to the government”, which has been trying to encourage workers to return to offices, in part to help struggling city centre economies. 

Some research has even suggested that the coronavirus has changed the landscape of working life in the UK so dramatically that it will never go back to normal. A study by O2 Business and YouGov revealed that changes in commuting routines appear to be the biggest factor.  Almost half (45%) of Brits believe lockdown will change their company’s approach to flexible working long-term, with money saved on commuting topping the reasons why people would be hesitant to return to the office. A third of employees (30%) said they wanted to reduce commute spending by working from home, 23% chose to work flexibly as they find travelling a waste of time, and 17% said they find commuting stressful.
Companies also cite “uncertainty about asking their employees to use public transport and the need for childcare during school summer holidays” as reasons to extend home working until September.

And here’s where the problem arises.  When workers stay home, regardless of their productivity levels and value to the business, of course they are saving on travel and food expenses but the other side of that coin is that catering businesses, already straining from Lockdown, will have no chance to recover, from the independent coffee and sandwich shop to the bistros and pubs that also rely on regular trade from office workers in the areas in which they opened up.  Indeed, the available trade was the very reason they were able to open up in the first place.  Similarly,  taxi owners and operations in large cities are almost at a complete standstill.

The same goes for the restaurants and bars in the country’s theatre districts which kept going almost solely from trade from theatre-goers.  Think also of the shops in airport concourses, now deprived of almost all their former business, think of business travellers who now conference via Zoom rather than in person, thus cutting down even more on travel and accommodation and you begin to see a much bigger picture of the breakdown of society in a manner never envisaged even a year ago.   

And the real irony?  That whatever business owners were formerly running in their (granted) overpriced office space, regardless of how much money they are saving in not having to subsidise staff travel expenses and floor space rental, their businesses too may also go under because there are simply no clients left to support them – they’ve all been forced out of viability by any and all of the above.

As the song as the start says ‘Oh, it’s grand how the money changes hands’ but when that money stops circulating or there’s simply not enough to go round, what then? Like the party game of musical chairs, sooner or later someone ends up with nowhere to sit but on the floor.

Go back to the office, people – your country needs you!