The decentralisation of work in Trinidad needs to be accompanied by the decentralisation of workplaces. The time has come for the big employers—State and private-sector companies—to actively explore and make serious efforts to move big offices and commercial operations out of Port of Spain.
Not tinkering at the edges. Big statement moves. That would include head offices; and large, highly-staffed ministries. Agriculture to Chaguanas was obvious. Think bigger.
I’m going to get some pushback on this. The commercial rental market in the capital is significantly bigger than in other parts of the country. Property owners would feel pain. And it’s not just workers who come into town—it’s customers for businesses—whether they’re in stand-alone properties, malls or are Downtown.
Big moves out are not easy. Where else in the country would you find commercial space for all of the State workers who populate Nicholas Tower? If you decide to develop, say, Charlieville, as a new hub, won’t you have to build new buildings to accommodate relocated workers? You’re not going to get all of the answers here. And if I’m to see all sides of a less-than-straightforward issue—as I should—I have to be prepared to argue against myself.
We need to move some work out of the city to ease the traffic chokehold on this island every weekday. I’ve argued in this space that “the daily Great Trek” north and west to Port of Spain and back is a mad and unsustainable ritual; and that it contributes to the case for more work from home (WfH) arrangements, for the companies and employees that can have it.
Globally, WfH is a conversation we’ve been having for decades, but pandemic lockdown forced us to take a more serious look at it. Lockdown showed many T&T employers that they could still operate at a functional level, with staffers working from home.
Not every company can embrace WfH. Restaurant waiting staff and shop workers can’t. Some workers to whom companies can extend the facility simply cannot be relied on to deliver under it. But in general—and here, the Point Lisas-based executive we quoted previously is worth quoting again—“the initial anxiety of productivity would be affected has now been proven to be unwarranted”.
On the other hand, lockdown made others realise they preferred to work mostly in a work environment—away from domestic distractions—and what they really craved was flexible work times, or a shorter work week.
State and private-sector entities will find solutions of best fit. Outside of not coming to the office, those could include having Ramesh in Gasparillo take part in the 8.30 team meeting via Zoom or Microsoft Teams, and head to work in Port of Spain at 10.30, in lighter traffic. It could mean making a deal with Faye… she could work through lunch and leave at 2 p.m.
But whatever our best fit with flexible working is, we’d simply be rearranging deckchairs on the sinking cruise ship if we did not address the powerful daily pull of commuters into Port of Spain. Workplace decentralisation must be seen as a serious alleviative option, even if the effort that it would take to make a difference would be considerable.
Let’s restate the relevant context. Car dealers sold at least 13,000 vehicles every year for much of the past decade. That figure jumped past 20,000 in 2016. There are more than one million vehicle registrations in T&T. The population is 1.4 million. T&T ranks 46th highest out of 234 countries, according to World Bank measures of population density, at just under 300 people per square kilometre. This is a small island, and its road capacity is not expanding. It has no trains or other forms of mass transit. Almost all transport has been shunted onto the roadways.
Let me argue against myself again. Shouldn’t alleviative decentralisation apply to other high-traffic centres such as San Fernando and Chaguanas? Besides, big companies like ANSA McAL are naturally, effectively decentralised, because they have geographically varied property portfolios across a range of sectors. The same goes for the Government, a major employer. Different parts of the Ministry of Finance, for example, have offices in various parts of T&T.
But think of what a big statement an ANSA McAL would make if it moved its head office from Maraval Road to Central Trinidad. Or that the Government would make if it moved a couple of major ministries out of Port of Spain, lock, stock and barrel.
Moving offices would be disruptive for some. In a previous work life at the BBC, management moved the large sports department from west London to a new facility—Media City in Greater Manchester. Some staffers left because changing cities was not an option. They had big, set things in their lives. Their children’s schooling. Mortgages they were close to paying off. BBC has now done the same with its Business units. Cue more resignations.
As much as relocation would cause inconvenience for some workers here, commuting from Diego Martin to Charlieville wouldn’t be disruptive on the same level, and would be going against the tide.
—Author Orin Gordon is a media and business consultant at oringordon.com.
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