We still need the office

The trendy thing right now is without doubt to be condemning the physical office to its death. Businesses are committing to officeless futures and the Twitter jockeys are proclaiming the arrival of truly flexible working. You only have to Google “the end of the office” to see what I mean. But if you ask me, it is all a little too self congratulatory and a little too soon.

We’ve been through an exceptional time and there is no doubt that many organisations are learning new things, but they run the risk of losing so much from the past too. Those with long memories and too much time on their hands will remember the unpopular decision by Marissa Mayer on arriving at Yahoo to end the use of home working and revert back to the office in the search for greater collaboration. That is one critical aspect but there are many others too – identity, organisation, communication, social systems to name but a few.

I’m aware that those with a penchant for granola and chai lattes will now be rolling their eyes and talking about how technology can fill all of this gaps. Have you been on Twitter or Facebook recently? Social channels are increasingly the source of division, misinformation, homogenous thinking and discord. A world based on remote interaction is one to wish for at your peril.

Our mental and physical wellbeing is supported by in person interaction. We are social creatures by nature, our anthropological origins are in coming together as tribes to support one another to achieve. In many ways we are hardwired to desire to be in the presence of others, it helps our cognitive development which aids problem solving and creativity. If you don’t believe me, listen to the work of Susan Pinker.

These arguments are all before I get on to the issue of equality, the challenge of ensuring gender balance, the inequality based on socio economic background and the significant risk of unobserved, unmonitored bias and discrimination. Whilst this has been exacerbated during the recent pandemic, with women being particularly disadvantaged, the issues extend beyond this period of time. Look at the role types least likely to work remotely and you will find that they are disproportionately occupied by those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

There are genuine benefits to more flexibility within the workplace, I’m not burying my head in the sand. But we must be careful not to lose the good that comes from coming together as a social group built around a task in the desire to cut costs by reducing our property commitments. In many ways, the real argument is whether businesses should be more geographically dispersed, so that people can live in and around the communities they work in. In the UK this is a London problem driven by our unbalanced regional economy. The commutes, the congestion, the high wages and high cost of living can all be solved by a more regionally dispersed business model.

But that’s an argument for another day.

You don’t need to be “HR correct”

I’ve written many times before about our love for a good fad in the world of management. Nothing appeals more than the chance to relaunch something of old under a new moniker and pretend that this version makes you faster, better, more competitive and more appealing to employees.

There is absolutely no doubt that language matters at work, but so does intent. Perhaps even more. The reality is that we already have a whole lexicon of terms that, from a purely linguistic perspective, are hardly appealing:

Redundant. Disciplinary. Grievance. Outplacement.

We will happily use these in our everyday work whilst at the same time mocking other people’s intent to soften the tone. And of course, if we are simply changing a label in order to improve perception then that is style over substance, but if we are doing it in order to help reposition how we do things, does that really matter? If talking about on boarding makes us focus more on the period of time between a hire being made and an employee starting, should we really care?

Debating labels can all be a little bit “HR correct” and ultimately adds little value to the way in which employees and candidates experience our organisations. Let their experience be the judge of our practice, they’re better placed to sense the authenticity and reality of our work, not social media bubbles.

If practitioners are genuinely striving to improve the work place then the language will be accepted, if not it will be rejected as insincere. After all, who in the UK can honestly tell me that they used the term furlough 6 months ago? Yeah, I thought not.

How the levy could tackle youth unemployment

Coronavirus is a no win game, that goes without saying. One of the losing groups that worries me most is the young, particularly those finishing education this year and entering the world of work.

Not only are we seeing a significant rise in those that are out of work and claiming benefits, we are also seeing the number of job vacancies fall to the lowest level on record. At the same time, more and more employers are reducing their apprenticeship entry as the focus more on maintaining existing jobs. That’s a grim environment to come into the world of work, for even the most optimistic.

In response the TUC have drawn up proposals for a job guarantee scheme to support employers in creating roles for at least six months. Whilst it is a nice idea, there is something much simpler and closer to hand. The apprenticeship levy.

Employers have, for a number of years, repeatedly asked for the ability to allocate some or part of salaries against the levy in order to increase the number of apprenticeships they can offer. Governments have been reluctant to adopt this approach, for some understandable reasons, but if I’m honest, others that sound more like obfuscated fiscal management. At a time when we are facing into such significant issue, all previous rules should be put to one side.

A fixed term scheme that allowed a percentage of apprenticeship salaries to be allocated against the levy as long as it was used to create additional apprenticeship roles would have a number of key benefits:

  • it is simple, easy and quick to deploy. The money is already with employers anyway, so it could be stood up by September
  • it provides young people (and others) with an average of two years employment and training, building skills, obtaining qualifications and learning about the world of work
  • it provides a future workforce, ready to deploy into the economy as things slowly start to improve and rebalance
  • apprenticeships standards are monitored and approved, ensuring that the quality of education is maintained for all
  • it is regionally agnostic, wherever there are employers with the ability to employ, there are opportunities for young people
  • it creates jobs in the short term and puts money back into the economy through wages

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t issues that would need to be worked out, how we ensure that employers don’t play fast and loose with funding, how we make sure that the apprenticeships created are beneficial to the economy after recovery and of course how we make sure that the young people get the quality of experience that is beneficial to them in the long term.

But at a time when we are faced with challenges beyond our experience, we need ideas, schemes that bring creativity, ambition and hope. An employer driven recovery, focused on skills and qualifications for the young? It has to be worth a shot.

Dumb luck and bias

Many years ago I was sat in a room with a number of senior politicians and business people discussing the challenge of improving social mobility. One of the advisors to the then coalition government made a point that has resonated with me for years, partly because of its obvious nature, but also because the infrequency of which it is made.

If you want some people to go up, by definition others need to go down. Which means the people that make the argument for change need to support the personal impact of their children potentially doing less well as a result.

I appreciate that there are some that will argue that there are ways and means by which this can be overcome on a macro level, however, for the sake of this argument I’m going to remain in the pragmatic rather than the idealistic.

This is a simple, but very compelling truth. In a system that is rigged in the favour of certain groups within society, change inevitably means the risk of them doing less well – which is one reason why it is incredibly hard to deliver. Because it means accepting that we might not have achieved what we have because of merit, but instead because of who we are.

At this point we all awkwardly look at one another and suggest the least competent in the room as perhaps the one that doesn’t deserve to be there, because it can’t be us, can it?

I’ve written so many times about how education is not a meritocracy. But there is also so much evidence that demographic factors and our social background influences our path throughout our lives. Add to this the random and untested nature of most recruitment and selection processes and you are more likely to be where you are because of dumb luck and bias than you are because of inherent talent.

If we want change, if we believe in change, then it means we have to accept that there will be losers as well as winners. For some of us, our children and grandchildren might need to accept places in schools, colleges or universities that we would previously never have considered. They may prosper less in the workplace, the housing market and in society as a whole. We have to look beyond personal self interest and to society as a whole.

And before you nod and walk away contently, remember that this isn’t just a small faceless elite sitting at the top of the pile, it applies to you, me and large swathes of corporate Britain too.