Homeworking and home-drinking
The dubious future of the after-work pint
Tuesday 29 December 2020
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With a few exceptions, I’ve been a primarily home-based worker for six years now, and overall, I love it. Setting my own hours and working rhythms helps me to be more productive whilst avoiding burnout. I have time to make myself a healthy lunch instead of queuing at a crowded M&S Food or Tesco Metro to buy an overpriced sandwich to consume back at my desk. Rather than spending an hour each morning and evening jostling onto an already crowded train amid many tuts from fellow passengers, I can enjoy reading a book from the comfort of my sofa, or perhaps even get ahead with the week’s housework. Benefits aside, I have a confession to make. There is one thing that I deeply miss about commuting to work: the immense joy of an after-work pint.
Stopping for a beer in a pub between the office and train station was one of life’s simple but great pleasures. Sometimes it would be a swift pint alone to clear my head before a carefully timed jog to catch the train with moments to spare. Other times, a ‘quick one’ would turn into a lingering drinking session with colleagues as daylight turned to dusk. It felt like sneaking in an extra treat to the week, providing a concerted time to relax. For me, an after-work pint was a bookend to the day, which has always been much harder to orchestrate when working from home. Grabbing a bottle from the fridge at 5.30pm never feels quite the same.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a long overdue push towards flexible working, and many businesses have committed to allowing employees to continue to work from home – in some cases indefinitely. For many employees this could lead to a higher quality of life, with greater ease of juggling childcare and other commitments, but what will happen to the pubs that have traditionally counted commuters among their key clientele? If increased homeworking becomes the new normal and many office buildings sit partially empty, so might the adjacent pubs with expensive leases.
At the beginning of July, the government gave pubs the green light to begin welcoming back customers for on-premise service, but for many businesses the feasibility of operating is closely tied to the level of foot traffic. Until more aspects of public life return, some establishments could struggle to operate viably. Nick, the owner of The Queens Head pub near to Kings Cross station in London, expects a severe reduction in local footfall to dramatically affect turnover. “That area around Kings Cross is completely different now to what it was before. We used to have a lot of Monday-Friday office workers coming in.” Nick believes that the COVID-19 pandemic might make 9-5 office working as we know it a thing of the past. “Regardless of what people are saying about getting people back to the office, we’re looking at the past now. We need to be looking at the future, which is probably a blend of home and office working.”
We need to be looking at the future, which is probably a blend of home and office working
Nick points out that the pandemic has changed the way that people buy beer. Hop Burns & Black, a bottle shop located in southeast London, is one example of a business that saw a surge in sales due to the increased demand for booze-to-go at the onset of the pandemic. “We saw a lot of panic buying in March, prior to the lockdown - at one point we were seeing customers come into our shops and almost sweep the shelves straight into their baskets” says shopkeeper Jen Ferguson. “We saw very strong (online) sales throughout April and May. Basket sizes during this time were usually fairly large too - there was a fear that production and importing could be affected at any time, so people wanted to ensure they had something in their fridges.” Jen doesn’t believe that people are drinking more than they were before the pandemic, but rather, their habits have altered. “People are drinking differently. A lot of weekly units would have been consumed at the pub or in restaurants pre-COVID, but they’re now being consumed at home.”
I spoke to some drinkers to learn how their habits have shifted due to the lifestyle changes brought about by the pandemic and lockdown. David, a marketing professional based in Greenwich, has been working from home for the last six months instead of commuting to Camden daily, and doesn’t expect to be back in the office full-time any time soon. “My drinking habits have definitely changed” David says. “Much of my drinking used to be after-work drinks with colleagues. Sometimes it was a quick couple of pints, but it’s not rare that we would stay until near closing.” David says that since pubs reopened, he has supported his local establishments by going for a quiet pint alone with a book from time to time; something that he didn’t do frequently previously. Rob, a designer, has also shifted his habits because of restrictions connected with the pandemic. “I had personal rules of never drinking at home and just having drinks out as a social thing. Now I’ve been stocking up on a lot more drinks at home!” The experiences of David and Rob demonstrate that the pandemic has done more than change the location in which people are drinking; it has changed broader drinking habits, potentially for the long term.
In coming months, it will be critical for each of us to consider how our new drinking behaviours may affect our favourite watering holes. Lesley, who has been at The French House in Soho for 31 years, tells me that she has been lucky to reopen her doors to wonderful support from her regulars, but says that it has still been incredibly challenging. “It’s been very, very, difficult. We’ve all become waiters instead of bartenders.” She says that her regular base of local customers has been rallying to support The French House since its reopening, spending more than they usually would. On the other hand, she says, the Christmas period usually provides a cash injection for the industry, and she is concerned that the prospect of being able to host large parties is not looking good. “The future is very grim for hospitality as it stands at the moment.”
Nick agrees that the industry is not yet out of the woods. “The last six months have been difficult, but I really feel that the next three to four months will be much harder for the hospitality industry as a whole.” He says that the mandatory shutdowns have shined a light on how low the operating margins are for businesses across the industry. Paul, general manager of The Harp in Covent Garden, is optimistic that the sense of community offered by pubs will endure. He says that whilst The Harp is missing trade from office workers, regulars are keeping the place ticking over. “It’s certainly quieter – but each day it gets a little better. We have a great crowd of loyal supporters. We will survive – it’s just a very strange time at the moment.”
With many would-be commuters still working from home, the tradition of the after-work pint is a long way from recovering in full. In the post-pandemic world, our lifestyles and work patterns could evolve beyond recognition, and a large number of people could develop a taste for working partially or even completely from home. I hope that many of us will remember to pop into one of our former favourite after-work haunts from time to time, even if it takes a more deliberate journey than once it did. Supporting our most beloved pubs – including those further from our residential areas – will be key to their survival. We must quite literally go the extra mile if we want them to weather the storm.
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