Drive time: The rise of the mobile office
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Richard Burton ponders the appeal of cars as offices in this new era of working from home.
I thought I was the only one who did this, until I pulled up next to a Mercedes nestled between rows of logs in Ashridge Park. The driver was on his laptop; seat dragged back, screen leaning against the steering wheel just like I do.
The next one I spotted was outside Verulamium Museum in St Albans, then the car park at The Grove hotel near Watford, Rothamsted Park in Harpenden and the green next to the cricket pitch in Redbourn.
I only recall because each time I exchanged an empathetic glance and, in the case of the Redbourn SUV, vaguely recognised him as one half of a school run couple.
Whether each of them was discreetly grabbing a moment to catch up or digging in while their other halves shopped or walked the dog, I’ll never know, but they were all following a trend identified a few weeks ago by heycar.
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They discovered a growing number of people faced with home working choosing to work from their cars, often in their drives. And in a survey commissioned on their behalf, one in 10 questioned admitted they regularly sought them out as “a place of solitude” where they can get more work done than they can in the house.
The survey was a comparative one. In other words, it’s something we’ve seen increase since the beginning of Lockdown. Not in my case, though. It’s a habit picked up from the days reporting from afar with the aid of an early, and quite heavy, Tandy laptop.
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In the days before email, “breaking” stories were submitted from a phone box or a mobile the size of a Battenburg cake that took twice as long and required you to walk up hills to stay connected. The idea that you could pull into a pub car park, sit in the warm listening to Steve Wright in the Afternoon and type everything up before getting on the M1 was the ultimate indulgence.
Alas, at the same time heycar CEO Mat Moakes was sending me his findings, a personal trainer called Badrul Islam was in touch to warn against one bad habit we’ve picked up – working from the sofa.
Describing what he called a “posture pandemic”, he added: “The sofa is actually the worst place to work as it encourages you to slump and puts a huge amount of strain on your shoulder and neck area which you inevitably crane.”
Well, it was back awareness week and, besides, a soft leather bucket seat designed to take me all the way to Cornwall without a break, should be good enough to write 1,000 words for a column like this. And if you have one of those cars with a decent hands-free, the acoustics are better than a living room with kids running around.
Talking of health issues, doctors do a lot of work on their drives. I realise that’s a sweeping statement, but two I know quite well can be seen for quite long periods – at least an episode of Holby City – on the phone on dark evenings, engine running to keep warm. The one who’s a GP told me only builders discuss client issues in the street. I’ve never asked the one who’s a surgeon but guessed she must be on call and discreetly separating home and office life.
A few years ago I wrote a story about an entrepreneur who’d approached homeowners who lived close to tube stations in North London and suggested they rent out their drives to commuters. He got a lot of takers and set himself up as a booking agent.
As a follow-up, I visited one of his key catchments in N11 to see homeowners leave for work and renters pull up in their place. When one owner returned, he’d block his own drive while he waited for the commuter.
It worked so well there because the residential streets within half a mile had restrictions in place between 11am and 12pm, thereby stopping tube-travellers leaving their cars there all day. Local office workers would then do a mid-day shuffle: parking from 8-11, moving to the local Sainsbury’s for an hour then back again.
Problem was, this led to a 12pm queue for spaces. So quite a few would simply return to their cars with laptops and mobiles and sit it out, occasionally going round the block when a warden came. So, in effect, you could have two or three roads at midday lined with people hard at work in mobile offices.
I also found a house outside the supermarket with a garage and two spaces in front of it, one of which had a car on it. I asked a scaffolder nearby if I could park there momentarily as the car park was full and he said, for a price, the owner would reverse into the garage and donate both spaces for the day.
No surprise then that many studies have rated driveways alongside gardens and extra bedrooms as adding significant value to the price of a home. If you Google it, you’ll find lots of “evidence”, although most of it will be from people who want to block pave them.
One proper study by online parking marketplace YourParkingSpace did suggest that creating a parking bay or drive could add as much as 10 per cent to the value of a property. But that, presumably, depends on where you live.
In fact, TV property pundit Phil Spencer from Location, Location, Location, was quoted as estimating that paving over the front garden to create a parking space could add £50,000 to the value of a property in a “prime city area” where parking is at a premium.
More interestingly, a Virgin Money guide to adding value suggested that, if you do have off-road parking, the best thing you can do with your garage is convert it.
Estimating conversion costs at typically between £10,000-£20,000, they suggest the return could be double that.
Makes sense if you agree with them that “around 90 per cent of all garages in the UK are left empty or full of boxes of miscellaneous junk”.