This decade is likely to see the biggest transformation of the workplace since the widespread adoption of the personal computer. Hybrid and remote working patterns adopted during the pandemic appear to be sticking, and a wave of disruption from artificial intelligence (AI) and large language models (LLMs) is following rapidly behind.
London is at the epicentre of these twin “workquakes”. The capital has persistently had the highest levels of home-working in the UK, with two thirds of Londoners saying they worked at home at least one day a week last summer. This reflects hybrid working’s dominance among professional and managerial staff, who make up 63 per cent of London’s resident workers, compared to 50 per cent of all England’s.
These people enjoy the flexibility, work-life balance and personal productivity that working from home can offer, though the impact on organisational or inter-organisational productivity is more contested. Nonetheless, speakers at a London Assembly meeting last week said that the era of “five days a week in the office” had gone for good, and that the task was to adapt central London to new ways of living, working and playing.
The accelerating pace of AI adoption looks likely to add turbulence. A recent UK government report found that workers in London were twice as exposed to AI as the UK average. This was not because of LLMs’ appetite for the diversity and vitality of the capital, but (like the prevalence of home-working) is largely a result of London’s occupational make-up. Unlike previous waves of automation, which affected manufacturing and routine clerical work, AI is coming for the professionals.
The report suggests that the most affected occupations include management consultants, financial managers, psychologists, economists, lawyers, project managers, market researchers, public relations professionals, authors and, perhaps surprisingly, clergy. The “safest” are jobs are those of such as sports professionals, roofers, plasterers, gardeners and car valets. The former occupations are over-represented in London, the latter are not.
However, before soft-handed metropolitan knowledge workers like me rush to retrain, ignoring our lack of aptitude, there are some caveats. The first is that the government report’s projections make no distinction between jobs that are augmented (those where workers can deploy AI to dramatically enhance their productivity), and those that are likely to be substituted (replaced, sooner or later, by new technology).
The second is that the analysis takes no account of the new jobs that will be created. We can see those that are at risk, but it is harder to identify the opportunities that will arise. A year ago, few people had any idea what a “prompt engineer” was. Today, demand for them is booming. And we can be re-assured by historical experience: the majority of jobs that Americans do today did not exist in 1940.
In any case, most professional jobs involve more than one activity, which is where the interaction between working from home and AI gets interesting. A management consultant, for example, may spend time meeting clients, preparing pitches, interviewing workers, analysing data, workshopping ideas and writing reports. A PR professional may write press releases, manage staff, research markets, pitch to clients and journalists, develop concepts, devise guest lists, plan and host events.
Some of these tasks are intrinsically social and best undertaken face-to-face. Others are more easily undertaken remotely, away from distraction and other people. Those in the latter group are also those that can be most easily supported by AI.
From this perspective, AI adoption and hybrid working will complement each other. Hybrid working has already accustomed us to working remotely with less social interaction; AI can provide a sounding board for ideas and be an orchestrator of collaboration, without the hassle and cost of a commute. Similarly, intelligent use of AI can boost productivity, improve co-ordination and reduce the “digital overload” of online meetings, emails and collaboration spaces that built up during lockdown.
But there may be a sting in the tail. Over time, people working remotely with AI support may find themselves edged out by their machine collaborators. Cost-conscious employers are already exploring whether some jobs undertaken remotely might be outsourced internationally. A task that can be completed in Leamington Spa rather than London can also be exported to Lisbon or Kuala Lumpur. Over time, it may also be undertaken by an AI.
Oxford University professors Michael Osborne and Carl-Benedikt Frey, who published a highly influential analysis of the potential impact of automation on the workforce in 2013, recently wrote a (very readable) update reflecting on the explosive growth in AI and how it may affect their original projections.
In 2013, they argued that tasks requiring social intelligence were unlikely to be automated. Now, they write, AI has challenged that “bottleneck” to automation: “If a task can be done remotely, it can also be potentially automated.” However, for sensitive tasks and relationships, face-to-face would retain primacy:
“The simple reason is that in-person interactions remain valuable, and such interactions cannot be readily substituted for: LLMs don’t have bodies. Indeed, in a world where AI excels in the virtual space, the art of performing in-person will be a particularly valuable skill across a host of managerial, professional and customer-facing occupations. People who can make their presence felt in a room, that have the capacity to forge relationships, to motivate, and to convince, are the people that will thrive in the age of AI. If AI writes your love letters, just like everybody else’s, you better do well when you meet on the first date.”
What does this all mean for cities like London? To start with, while we do not know precisely what new jobs will be created by the AI revolution, London is already one of a handful of hotspots for AI start-ups, so it is likely to be the location for many of the new jobs too. The capital is already home to Google Deepmind and many other high growth AI firms, and OpenAI have announced plans for their first international outpost in London.
The combination of AI and hybrid working may ironically strengthen London’s role as one of a few genuine global centres for face-to-face interaction. If remote work is increasingly dispersed or automated and in-person workers with social skills remain in demand, then diverse, globally-accessible, sociable cities such as London will provide the ideal setting for their relationships and collaborations.
There is a bigger picture too. A recent paper by Richard Florida and others talked of the rise of “metacities” based on long-distance networks of collaboration and intermittent commuting. This identified London and New York as the world’s two leading “superstar” hubs, sitting at the heart of networks of talent and interaction. London’s network, as measured by talent flows, includes Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Bristol, but also Dublin, Paris, Lagos and Bengaluru.
Florida and colleagues argue that the constellation of satellite cities will shift over time, but the importance of superstar cities will persist. This suggests that in coming years London will need to plan for growth in housing, in offices and in new forms of collaborative and social spaces.
The city will also need to be open and welcoming to global talent while helping local workers adapt to change, and to work more closely with its satellite cities to ensure that economic transformation can deliver prosperity and economic growth across the UK.
This is likely to be a turbulent decade for London’s economy, but it could also be one in which the capital’s national and global profile increase.