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Can better broadband really solve the housing crisis? The head of techUK thinks it’s a start

The idea that there is a housing crisis in the UK is not only not new, it’s so obvious that there’s really no need to offer any evidence to support it.

Young people entering the workplace need to be earning six figures to get a mortgage in London and for the vast majority that is simply not going to happen.

This disturbs Jacqueline de Rojas.

Her day job is area VP of US software giant Citrix and she was last year listed as Computer Weekly’s most influential woman in technology. But de Rojas is talking to NS Tech as president of professional association techUK. And she thinks the answer might have been staring at us for a while.

“When I reflect on the agendas of politicians and MPs who are saying we have an affordable housing problem in most major cities, I do believe that flexible working is part of the potential solution,” she says.

She’s quick to stress that it’s not the whole answer; that would be glib and facile, she readily agrees. However, organisations now have the technology and know-how to enable people to work effectively from a range of locations.

Which is fine, but people don’t seem to want to move.

A whitepaper from de Rojas’ employer, Citrix, entitled ‘The Housing Crisis: a Digital Solution’ points to 59% of “knowledge workers”, people who could work more or less anywhere with a decent internet connection, opting to work in a city anyway.

This isn’t surprising in the light of the Adonis Growth Review, which points out that since 2010 a striking 96% of net private sector jobs have been added in the cities rather than in rural areas.

As many as 54% said they would move to rural areas if they could still perform at the same level. Technically, they could. So why aren’t they?

Numbers game

The answer is that killer phrase, “if they could still perform at the same level”.

“Half of them, 49%, believe that living in a large city impacts your career prospects,” she says. Lots of respondents believed it’s possible only to get a decent job in a big city.

The changes that need to happen are therefore substantial. “We need to look at who we employ, how we employ people and where we employ them from,” says de Rojas. “It seems to me that it’s the culture that has to change, corporately, for that to happen.”

If it happens, she adds, then it might contribute to the amount of remote workers and this in turn could contribute to increasing diversity in the talent pool.

“You could get more wounded war heroes, who we use a lot in tech. They have very structured thinking. You could use working parents, you could use technology experts who are on the autism scale and don’t handle journeys terribly well, you could use disabled people…”

Technology lends itself to helping those people work and contribute to major companies without having to own property somewhere central.

This isn’t anything new. As long ago as 1995, Bill Gates was predicting a move to the countryside in his book, ‘The Road Ahead’ – it just hasn’t happened yet.

“There is a tipping point,” de Rojas says, and although it’s taken time, the fact that so many people have access to fast internet suggests we’re there.

“We’re seeing people leaving the boardroom and going to the coffee shop, we’re seeing people working on call centres from their back bedroom because they can. Flexible working is upon us whether we like it or not. 1995 and The Road Ahead was very visionary but now we have the technology to make it happen.”

Law is there

Since 2014 in the UK, the law has said employees can ask for flexible working (although what stopped them asking before isn’t clear – there’s nothing in the law to ensure a positive answer). Only last week in France there was proposed legislation to ensure people can actually switch off from work.

Meanwhile in corporate-land, it’s only a few years since Yahoo! and HP (as was) decided to pull staff back into the office.

“There are exceptions and disruptions happening all over the place,” says de Rojas. “Companies that operate at scale have to make sure they get their culture right. It isn’t an either/or, I’m not saying cities will become ghost towns, I’m saying the opportunity to create a good balance between flexible working and getting people together is really important.

So corporate culture has to continue to change. In what way? There has been a lot of focus on employees needing to motivate themselves, but managers also need to trust them.

“The T word, trust, is probably the big one,” she says. “It comes from the top. It takes a leader who employs people in their own image and measures people not just by the hours that they sit in a particular place but, for example, in their outcomes or smart productivity metrics (like the projects they conclude or value they bring) rather than stamps a card.”

The days when people would be considered good workers for staying in the office until 10pm are gone, she believes, that’s very old school.

Good leaders

Young people are already starting to dictate their own hours in her own organisation, she says. “We need to create open-minded leaders who can create better metrics,” she says. “And the sort of leader who will recognise people who are not under their noses and promote them all the same.”

Teaching people to be outstanding leaders is going to be tricky, she says, but the connectivity, video and new forms of relationship are starting to make it possible. It’s not a replacement for seeing people in person, she stresses, but it’s a replacement for some of the unnecessary meetings.

TechUK’s white paper points to other benefits too. It quotes a report from BT Workstyle that suggests flexible working enabled the company to reduce its office overhead by a massive 40%.

It might sound fanciful, or at least extremely optimistic to look to technology to address the housing crisis in this way, but it’s worth considering.

“There is a housing crisis which politicians need to solve, and what I’m contending is that this is one of the areas in which there can be a disruptive route to addressing that problem in part.”

We have the crisis starkly in front of us and we may have the means to chip away at it – at least a little. Isn’t it worth considering?