Give a man a fish

It was many years ago, probably around 2002, that I was introduce to Fish! and if I’m absolutely honest, I was hugely sceptical. I think it was the giant cuddly toy fish and other paraphernalia that accompanied the book that put me off. In those days, we didn’t have video on demand, or indeed a widespread functioning internet so everything was accompanied by a physical prop or tool. But 20 years later, the main lessons still stick with me and form a central part of my personal philosophy towards work.

For those of you that are unfamiliar, there are four main tenets – Be There, Play, Make Their Day and Choose Your Attitude. You can read a bit more about them via the link at the top of the post, or by a simple Google search, but the one I want to talk about is the last of the four, choosing your attitude.

As a leader you will, time and time again, come across someone who is stuck, a victim of their circumstances and who will take every opportunity to share their role as malcontent with anyone who will give them the time to do so. They’re the one in the team meeting who waits until everyone is excited about something, before bringing them all down. They are the one who has seen everything fail before, so knows it will this time too.

I’m the first to highlight that there are workplaces practices that are terrible and just for absolute clarity, I’m not talking about situations where people are bullied, harassed, discriminated against or victimised. We can all agree that these situations are unacceptable and never the fault of the individual.

I’m talking about those colleagues where, at the back of your head, you’ll be thinking, “if this is so terrible, why don’t you just leave?” We will all have encountered someone like this, we may even have been in that space ourselves, waiting for a meeting to end and then complaining to our colleagues in quiet corridor conversations, or via private WhatsApp groups.

Perhaps now, given everything we’ve been through, recognising we can choose our attitude is one of the most caring gifts we can give to ourselves and to others. With so much adversity all around us, coming into work and choosing to complain, be negative, to hate what we do just adds to the external pressures on our mental wellbeing and those around us.

We cannot choose the circumstances we find ourselves in, no matter what our role or seniority, there will always be external factors that we can’t control. Be we absolutely can choose the attitude with which we turn up everyday and how we are with ourselves and with those around us. We will all have experienced the benefit of working with someone who is positive and can-do, even in the toughest times, and we will also have experienced working with someone who we know will find problems and fault, but without helping to find improvements or solutions. Whilst we know the effect this has on us, I wonder whether we always stop to reflect which role we are playing for others?

What’s going on?

It’s fair to say that the last year and a half have been pretty rubbish for everyone. Whatever your circumstances, you’ll have had some aspect of your life changed and, as is the nature of time, you’ll never be able to get it back. But of course the “rubbishness” of the last year has also been different for different people, some of us will have been seriously ill, some of us will have lost loved ones, some of us will have experienced extreme financial pressures and other will have lost their homes and/or their jobs.

From an intellectual, rational perspective we can make comparative assessments of the impact. It is probably something we can all agree on that losing your life partner is more impactful than having to work from home for a year. From an emotional and psychological perspective though, it is harder to start to make relative assessments of the impact on one person compared to another.

When we go through a collective moment like this, the danger is that we apply that rational assessment to belittle the emotional impact, it manifests itself when we say, “at least you’re healthy and well” or, “well you still have a lot to be grateful for”. By applying our logical assessment of others emotional impact we are effectively negating their reality, we are choosing not to listen to how that person is feeling and instead telling them how they should feel.

There’s a brilliant explanation of this in the wonderful book, “It’s ok that you’re not ok” by Megan Devine which was recommended to me when I was going through my own grief a few years ago. Devine wonderfully articulates the impact of people rationalising away other people’s feelings during bereavement by drawing from their own experience, “you’re still young” and, “you’ll move on eventually”. Our awkwardness or unwillingness to exist in the moment of someone else’s emotions and our desire to fix it with rationality.

Whilst bereavement and the pandemic are at the more extreme end of human experiences, the same thing happens each and every day as we go about our work,

“Everyone’s busy, that’s just how it is”

“Well at least you’ve got a job”

“There’s millions of people without a job”

I’m not, of course, saying that sometimes some relativity and structure can’t help people when they’re distressed, but it starts by taking time to understand what’s going on for them, what’s happening in their life and what support, or help (if any) they need, rather than trying to fix or rationalise their situation for them without their permission.

When there is so much pain, anxiety and fear going on, we can all become a little tired and even desensitised to the world around us – that’s part of our own self protection. But to get out the other side of this, in our homes, workplaces and communities, we’re going to have to start by acknowledging how those that are around us really feel. That’s the work that needs to be done.

If you’ve got three minutes to spare, I’d recommend you take time to watch this.

WFH? Think about the bigger picture

I’m cross with myself for even sitting down to write this, there are so many important things that I could or should be worrying about, that getting dragged into a debate about where people work seems indulgent and frivolous. Yet the consequences of not speaking out, seem staggeringly dangerous to our culture, society and economy. Less than 40% of the UK workforce can actually WFH, yet their actions have a greater reach and impact then is regularly part of the debate.

In making the arguments that I’m going to put forward, the obvious, simple rebuttal is to say – well you would say that wouldn’t you? You’re the establishment, a person of power, a vested interest. The great irony, however, is that because of all of these very attributes I could be seen as one of the people that could personally benefit from the freedom to work anywhere – I could buy a big house by the sea, live part of the year abroad, move to one of the most beautiful parts of our country and avoid the slog of the daily commute.

And yet I don’t. Not as a point of principle, not through some dogmatic belief, but simply because as leaders our obligation should be to make decisions for the greater good of society, never more so than when it goes against our personal self interest. I don’t have megalomaniac desires to oversee the every movement of my workforce either – this isn’t some Taylorian obsession. So why do I think the arguments being put forward for remote working are such a bad thing for us all?

The wages argument

There have been countless headlines about employees willing to take a pay cut in order to work remotely and maybe that’s true. But it is one thing saying it and it is another when it comes to be. Most of us that work in the profession of HR have a broad understanding of how compensation packages are developed and that takes into account the local market conditions. But what do we mean by market conditions, the town the city, the country, the continent, or the world? Don’t believe that business won’t have recognised the opportunity to put downward pressure on pay, even if they aren’t going to do so now, they absolutely will. In the same way that so many that have made declarations of flexibility have also been easing themselves out of their real estate obligations to aid their ailing bottom lines. These aren’t Machiavellian tendencies, they’re just the reality of business.

The outsourcing argument

Some people will have the skills that mean they can work at the very top of their profession, anywhere. But not many of us or in fact the vast majority of us. And without exclusive skills, our competitive advantage in the labour market is driven by either availability or by price. If I want to hire an accountant in Louth, there are a limited number in that market with the skills and that determines the price. But in the whole of the world? If location isn’t a factor, then I can broaden my labour market, reducing the cost and effectively outsource the work. No office overheads, maybe cheaper labour market terms and a greater pool of skills. If the only contact is via video conference, what does it matter? The choice then is to obtain exclusive skills, or compete in a pricing race to the bottom with people in countries that have significantly lower overheads.

The housing argument

One of the biggest arguments you hear by the proponents of change is the ability to live in cheaper and nicer areas of the country. Notwithstanding the point about wages – being paid a City salary but choosing to live in the highlands of Scotland is a temporary situation- there is a greater point about cost and availability of housing. The data already points to significant changes in the market, as availability of housing stock in some of the most sought after rural areas diminishes and prices increase exponentially. But what about the people that are born and raised in those areas, that chose to work locally maybe as a nurse, a teacher or in one of the 60% of roles that can’t work remotely? What happens when they can’t afford to buy a house locally and every planning application for affordable housing is rejected because of complaints from the new influx of residents?

The fairness argument

As I’ve said before, at the heart of this is fairness. The last year has amplified the unfairness that exists in the workplace, with women, young people and ethnic minorities more likely to have had their employment or income impacted by the pandemic. Those that have seen less impact have been those in industries less touched by the economic impact and with the ability to work from home. They’re disproportionately located in the affluent south of the UK. The mantra that working from home is de facto more inclusive just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny under pressure. Is this one factor going to remove all the bias and prejudice that exists in our employment practices? We’re kidding ourselves if we think so.

The infrastructure argument

Whether we like it or not, our national infrastructure is built around the geographical make up of our population over hundreds of years. The transport, education, health, utility networks are all designed to meet the needs of the population as they stand today. And we know that sometimes, even with the best intent, they can be creaking at the seams to do that. With train travel at its lowest level in 150 years and TfL on its knees, the Government has stepped in to ensure that services continue, but that can’t and won’t happen indefinitely. All of these things could be corrected over time, but that takes thought, planning, investment and significant management. In the meantime, when you want to pop from your rural retreat back into London to go for dinner, the restaurants are going to be shut, there will be no cabs and don’t even think about going to the theatre. And that’s before we talk about school places, the quality of roads or hospital capacity in sought after areas.

So what?

The thing is, and this is the one thing I’d like you to take away, work is a part of the fabric of our society. It does not and cannot exist in isolation and significant changes to work have consequences, often unintended, on society. That’s why zero hours contracts and the uberfication of the workforce where so passionately debated, but this time the people holding the decision making sway are some of those that are most likely to benefit themselves – at least in the short term. I could make countless arguments about productivity, creativity, innovation, collaboration and team work. But those things are about organisational performance and I’m not going to try and run your organisations for you – well not without a decent fee. What brings us together should be the interests of the country, for now, for tomorrow and the longer term. As I’ve argued for a long time, the most sustainable answer to this issue is to move work across the country so people can live and work locally, affordably and the broader community feel the benefits too, but that also takes time.

Finally, I want to talk again about the concept of choice. I’ve seen a number of companies talk about the neoliberal flavour du jour – that of personal choice in their decision making. It has a wonderful appeal, doesn’t it? What has less appeal is consequences that are often not built into the original equation. And the issue with individual choice is that sometimes the consequences are felt by the person themselves, sometimes they’re felt by the wider community. This last year or so has, in many ways, been an existential debate about individual choice versus collective responsibility. Remember staying at home to save lives and protect the NHS, mask wearing, foreign travel? Maybe it is hopeful to think we might hold onto something from that debate when personal self interest once again comes to call, but one thing I do know, choice is a theme that has a track record of only playing out well for the fortunate few.

The battle for attention

If there is a parallel between business and politics, it is about the ability to win the narrative argument. In many ways, we are running constant campaign within our organisations seeking to win over new supporters and retain those that we have. And in business, like politics, we often make this whole process sound harder than it is. In essence, it boils down to a few core approaches.

  • Clear and simple – if you want people to buy into your organisational vision, then you need to keep it clear and simple. It needs to make sense to others and not just to those that came up with it. The vast majority of people, whether they’re consumers or employees, aren’t going to spend hours and hours trying to diagnose your messaging they need it delivered to them on a plate. It doesn’t matter whether that’s your overall vision, or one of a change programme or piece of work. Same rules apply, always,
  • Listen to feedback – people will tell you if you’ve got it wrong, listen to them. The instinctive reaction is to justify, to tell people that they’re a little bit stupid for not understanding, to tell them that it is all really clear and written down. But if they’ve haven’t understood it, then whose fault is that really? How many change programmes or product launches have died because the message simply didn’t resonate. I guarantee the telltale signs were there way before.
  • Don’t drink the Kool Aid – or perhaps, more importantly, if you have then step out of the way. The problem with the converted is they only see the benefits, they are by definition biased and therefore they won’t be able to understand the pitfalls. If everyone on the team thinks the plan is “the best idea ever”, then you’ve got a problem. Hire someone who sees the downsides and listen to them.
  • Appeal to the right thing – Sometimes people don’t “get you” and sometimes they don’t “feel you”, recognising which one you’re up against and tailoring your messaging is key. Have a think about the consumer brands you love the most, whether it is a product, a service or an experience. My guess is that you’ll be able to explain why it works for you, but you’ll also be able to explain how it makes you feel. Do people understand why what you’re doing makes sense and do they feel it will make things better for them?
  • Campaign every day – ok so we’re not running an election here, but the principle is exactly the same. There will always be other narratives at play, either inside your organisation or outside, telling people messages that might contradict with the ones you want to get across. As it was put to me a number of years ago, “every day you don’t land your narrative, someone else does”. It really is that simple.