Will the pandemic put a stop to the London ‘brain drain’?

·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·5 min read
The city of London financial district is seen over the Thames
Many people have left London in search of cheaper rent and a better work-life balance. Photo: Reuters/John Sibley

Moving to London to build a career is a well-trodden path. For years, young people have left their hometowns for the bright lights of the capital, with the hope of landing a good job with a decent salary.

However, the explosion in home-working due to the pandemic is shifting the focus away from a London-centric view of work. Research already suggests that the pandemic and the onset of remote working has accelerated migration out of the capital and other major UK cities – particularly among young workers.

According to a survey of more than 1,000 UK workers by the Adecco Group and YouGov, 52% believe we will see a “reverse brain drain” of talent away from urban areas. Those in the capital are predicting the biggest movement of UK workers out of the city, with 57% believing many workers will no longer feel the need to live within commuting distance of top city firms.

Life outside the capital can mean cheaper rent, less time spent commuting and a better work-life balance. But will the pandemic reverse brain drain in the long-term – and are there any downsides for young workers and graduates making their way up the career ladder remotely?

“Brain drain happens when educated young professionals such as graduates leave a place or business to move somewhere to benefit from better pay, working conditions, lifestyle and potentially work-life balance,” says Rachel Jones, director of talent at corporate services firm Sodexo UK and Ireland. “Typically, it is regarded as economically costly to the country or place the individuals are leaving.”

With many businesses now embracing remote working long-term, broader talent pools may open up where location is no longer a barrier. This could lead to fewer graduates looking purely for job opportunities in London in the future.

Read more: Do people really want to return to the office on 19 July?

Migration out of the capital was already an issue prior to the pandemic, with many people leaving London in search of cheaper rent and a better work-life balance. Before lockdown, only 27% of Londoners intended to live in London for the rest of their lives. Now, this desire has dropped further, to 20%. According to data collected by TotalJobs, a third of people say that long-term flexible working would encourage them to move, rising to 37% of 18- to 24-year-olds nationally.

For Londoners, this is even more of a game changer. A significant proportion (43%) said that if their London-based employer offered them flexible or remote working, they’d be encouraged to move out of the capital. Moving plans have previously been put on hold for 38% of Londoners, due to job commitments.

“London used to be the goal for many aspiring professionals, and attracted the best of global talent,” says careers expert Laura Trendall Morrison, founder of GameChanger Consultancy.

“However, with Brexit relocating key agencies across European cities and causing redistribution of employees between London and Europe for multinational companies, as well as the pandemic and disproportionate living and housing costs, London now perhaps seems less attractive to professionals and graduates than it did 20 years ago.”

This is good news for regional areas, despite the likelihood of rising local house prices. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that London-based businesses will lose out, because access to top talent within rural areas may remain as a result of new hybrid working measures.

“I think we'll see a rise in what's termed ‘agile working’ – living outside of London, and mainly working remotely, and maybe commuting in for key meetings every fortnight,” says Trendall Morrison. “I did this myself in the 2000s and this meant a better standard and affordability of housing, more access to parks and green spaces and better balance and wellbeing.

“The critical thing for graduates is London is a city where networking opportunities are everywhere,” Trendall Morrison adds. “Therefore it's important for any graduates choosing to work remotely to plan a networking strategy to maximise their time in the capital when coming into the office.”

However, while remote working is great for many workers, people should be wary of potential drawbacks. For some employers, remote workers face an "out of sight, out of mind" mindset and may find themselves missing out on vital networking or progression opportunities. Those who choose to commute to the office will have the opportunity to network more easily – and may find themselves first in line for promotions.

Read more: Does remote working really kill career progression for women?

“Practically, young workers may face difficulties when working from home, such as working in a shared house, without the technological benefits or peace of a home office,” says Jones. “Entirely working from home could also impact their learning and professional development. The experience individuals have in the early days of learning on the job can be the building blocks for how they perform throughout the rest of their careers.”

Other downsides for young people working remotely can be lack of integration with the organisation, says Morrison. “This can lead to not feeling part of the culture, and missing out on building those key relationships with colleagues,” she explains. “Development at work can often depend on those informal learning and mentoring moments between colleagues, the chance conversation in the coffee queue that leads to a special project.”

If employers are conscious of potential bias towards in-office workers and ensure all employees have an equal chance to progress, these problems can be mitigated. Likewise, young people need to be supported virtually so they can learn on the job successfully.

But loneliness – a key problem for many young people, especially during the pandemic – may remain an issue. Working alongside others can be an opportunity to socialise and prevent isolation.

“Many young people also form lifelong friendships in those early years, bonds that are not only emotionally necessary and stabilising but valuable professional networks,” says Jones. “Regardless of where a young person works, businesses need to step up and provide the relevant tools and training for their employees.”

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