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.

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.

Here’s some things we can all do

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks talking about the societal impacts of the pandemic, the way in which it risks increasing injustice and widening the already significant gaps that prevent social mobility. And more than ever, organisations need to step into the breach and make real meaningful interventions and sustainable changes to the way in which they do business.

Whilst many of the changes are going to require substantial changes to our education system, our economy and our industrial policy. There are also practical steps that each and everyone of us can take.

  1. Stop asking for educational qualifications. This summer, for the fist time in living memory, hundreds of thousands of young people will leave school without having taken a single final exam – not to mention those that are graduating at the same time. The rest of the school system has been put on hold, risking significant disparity between different social groups. If you haven’t removed qualifications from your recruitment process already, now is the moment to do so.
  2. Invest in apprenticeships and retraining schemes. As people start to lose their jobs as sectors contract and the economy changes, we will need to create opportunities to retrain and re-skill. Where we’ve struggled to attract, to fill positions or to build succession. Now is the time to think about the opportunities to solve those problems  and provide good quality career prospects for people needing work.
  3. Think more broadly than working from home. There’s understandably been a lot of talk about flexible working, agile working, remote working and everything that we’ve learnt. Whilst of course we have some fantastic data and evidence, let’s not forget that not every one can work from home. And moreover, lots of jobs are based around people working in offices. Let’s think about all jobs when we’re making our plans.
  4. Engage with schools and colleges. When schools get back and running we need to double up our efforts to support them and build skills and confidence back into young people. Looking at how we can work better together as organisations, how we can reach those schools that need support the most and we can support the charities and organisation that act as intermediaries that will have struggled during this period of time. We need to create hope, as much as we do jobs.
  5. Consider jobs as well as technology. If there is one thing that we’ve learnt over the past few weeks is that we are better when people and technology come together, where they’re additive and not replacements of one another. Decisions that replace jobs with technology, without addressing the societal consequences will come back to bite us sooner or later.
  6. Be open to all, not just those you know. I’ve seen a number of people offering help to their connections either online or in person. Whilst well intentioned and well meaning, the problem is this only helps people you’re connected too. And we know one of the biggest challenges in terms of closing the social divide comes in the collateral that comes from personal relationships. It is no different to offering jobs or internships to your friends – find organisations and charities that will help you translate your offer to a wider group based on need.

Will we remember to care?

Last week I was having a conversation with a member of my team. Reminiscing that when I started in HR as a Personnel Officer I used to know all the colleagues absent with long term sickness, what they were off with and when they were having any treatments. I’d diarise (paper version) to speak with them on a regular basis just to check in. I wouldn’t pass the test as strategic HR these days, but there was something utterly right about it nonetheless.

As we start to emerge from the current situation, we can reflect on what we’ve learnt in organisations about colleague’s lives, things that we probably didn’t know about and had left to line managers. My team have personally contacted by phone over 900 colleagues who registered that they either have, or live with someone with, a vulnerability – to agree a personal care plan. The process has been both humbling and reassuring. It goes without saying that has received universal gratitude from the colleagues receiving the call, but it has also been a moment of pride for the HR colleagues involved.

It might just be a “big organisation” thing, prone to the application of some sort of bastardisation of the much loathed Ulrich model (yes Dave, I know you were misunderstood), where employee wellbeing is pushed to line managers and shared service centres. But I do wonder whether we can learn something from this about what employees really want from their HR departments and teams?

My guess is that it isn’t another change or development to the appraisal process, a new recruitment methodology or a self service portal. More likely a group of people who know them, understand their needs and can support them through work, whatever challenge they’re facing. Let’s not forget the the very origins of HR we practice lies in workplace welfare teams.

Sexy? Maybe not. Strategic? Probably more so than many activities that we do. Feeling safe, cared for and known is more likely to drive productivity than the new expensive leadership course you’ve been busy designing. It doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t do all these other things too. But let us not forget what is at the very core of our being and hope that this current situation brings it back to the fore.