Arlen Pettitt, North East England Chamber of Commerce knowledge development manager, assesses COVID-19’s impact on the working landscape and identifies areas where the region’s business community can evolve to ensure success in the changing marketplace

Take a map of the North East and stick a pin where Grey’s Monument is in the centre of Newcastle.

Now take a pencil and draw a circle, starting at Cramlington and taking in Seaton Sluice and Sunderland to the east, round to Chester-le-Street in the south and Prudhoe in the west, then joining back up where you started in the north.

The radius of that circle – approximately 9.4 miles – is about the length of the average North East commute.

Or it was in 2019; in 2020 a significant portion of us are probably averaging closer to 9.4 metres.

That 9.4-mile distance varies a little bit across the country, but only from 7.4 miles in London to 11.9 miles in the East of England.

Why does that matter?

The message from the data is clear: people like to live fairly close to where they work.

For a region like the North East, with around 2.7 million people and a population density of around 800 people per square mile, that’s actually a fairly limited pool of potential employees a business can draw from.
By way of comparison, the North West has a population density of nearly 1300 people per square mile, and London’s is approaching 15,000.

Just two per cent of North East workers commute into the region – the lowest proportion in England – so we are more reliant on our local workforce than other parts of the country.

It’s one of the accepted narratives of the North East that people are drawn out of the region in order to pursue their careers – both those who are born here and those who come here to study then leave after graduation.

Flipping the viewpoint for a minute; where population density limits the pool of available workers for businesses, business density limits the scope of an individual’s potential career.

The truth is, we just don’t have a lot of private businesses.

We have 694 businesses per 10,000 adults, compared to 981 in the North West, 967 in Yorkshire and the Humber, and 1544 in London.

People need to feel that where they live offers them choice – specifically, choice within 9.4 miles – so that if Job One isn’t what they thought it would be or doesn’t offer progression, there’s a Job Two, a Job Three and a Job Four out there too.

That’s especially an issue for younger people who might be uncertain about their career path or expecting to move roles more often.

For workers who are a little older – perhaps in their 30s or 40s – the problem might be having a business ecosystem that can support their partner too, perhaps in an entirely different sector.

Now, here’s the point. If the future of work is less tied to being present in one location, then those barriers are less of a problem.

For large spells during the coronavirus pandemic, the official guidance has been to work from home if you can.

The result has been unprecedented levels of home working, including many businesses and job roles that had previously thought it impossible.

Back in April, at the height of the national lockdown, 49.1 per cent of North East workers had done at least some work at home that week – above the national average, and beaten only by London, the South East and the North West.

That’s pretty good going to have half of us on the 9.4 metre commute instead of the 9.4 mile one.

However, ability to work from home – as I’ve written before on these pages – is an incredibly uneven playing field.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that during that spell in April you were at least three-to-four times more likely to be working from home in managerial, director, professional or technical positions (57.2 per cent-69.6 per cent), than you were in skilled trades, care, leisure or sales (14.9 per cent-18.9 per cent).

This, of course, makes perfect sense – some jobs can be done from anywhere with the right technology, but some really can’t.

The industry split found by the ONS makes sense too. The information and communication and scientific and technical sectors topped the working from home charts, and the transport and accommodation sectors were at the bottom.

Keeping those inequalities and our uncertain world in mind, I think there are three areas where the North East can focus.

One –
use our looser relationship with the workplace to encourage more people to live and work from the region, even when their business might be based elsewhere.

Two –
create deeper links between business and education to ensure we have the right skills in the local workforce longer term, regardless of ability to work from home.

Three –
support entrepreneurial activity in the region to increase the size and diversity of the region’s business community.