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.

In an Octopus’s garden

We all know that, in the view of the general public, HR has a bad reputation. Those of us that work in the profession are either aware of this and battling against it every day, or hopelessly unaware and therefore probably part of the problem. We get reminded on a regular basis by polls, tweets and of course newspaper articles. The normal form of attack is, “there is no need for HR”.

Having worked in the profession for the last 25 years, it does beg a couple of questions:

  • Why am I still employed?
  • Are the people that employ me, therefore, entirely stupid?

Last week, the BBC ran an interview with CEO of Octopus Energy, Greg Jackson entitled, “My billion pound company has no HR department”. I’ve got a lot of respect for Octopus Energy, from what I’ve seen they’ve got a great culture, and whilst I don’t know Greg, every CEO is entitled to run their organisation in the way that they think best delivers their outcomes. I do, however, take issue with the sloppy reporting from the BBC that was clearly more about driving clicks than any sort of quality journalism. Unsurprisingly, this was then picked up by the Daily Mail and you only have to read the comments to get the general sense – interestingly whilst he said that he didn’t have an HR or IT department, you can see which one is used for both headlines and gets the kicking.

Now whilst I’m the first person to point the finger at bad and sloppy HR practice (you can read the last ten years of writing if you don’t believe me) I like to think we should base our arguments on data and evidence rather than silly, pointless articles which are far from the levels of journalistic quality we’d expect from the license fee. A quick search through Linkedin shows that there are “HR” people in Octopus Energy, they are currently advertising for someone to join their Learning and Development team and Octopus Group, the overall holding company has a Head of People. They’ve also recently clarified that they do have learning and development and recruiters (and presumably payroll and reward) but just no “HR Department”. Although that does beg the question what HR is, if it isn’t recruiting, training and rewarding people?

In essence, the discussion is about how much HR responsibility is devolved to the line and how much of it is centralised – which in experience works very differently for different companies, sectors and industries. And Octopus Energy look like they’ve found a balance that works for them – which is brilliant. It probably wouldn’t work for every other company and, who knows, it may not even work for them in the longer term. But that is all it is, one CEO explaining how he runs a specific company – yet the coverage (and many idiot commentators) seem to want to make it into a larger debate.

Why does it matter? It doesn’t really. It is silly and nonsensical to try to extrapolate. Most will shake their heads at another pointless article and go back to their day job figuring out what works best for their organisation and how to improve performance through people. But in a year when people in the profession, across industry have been thrown into more emotion, complexity, challenge and difficulty, where the profession has had to stand up and lead more than ever. Well, some people will feel this is an unnecessary and untimely kick in the teeth from people with too much time on their hands and who’ve never walked in their shoes. And to be honest, in the context, I’d forgive them for thinking this way.

Careless talk

There is a lot to feel grumpy about at the current time and as a rule I try to look on the positive side – because when things simply get too overwhelming it rarely pays to search out more bad news. One thing that I do struggle with on a regular basis is the intentional use of exaggerated language in the reporting of the current situation – even by some of the most respected of organisations.

A case in point is an article I was reading yesterday which talked about the number of coronavirus cases “soaring” in the workplace after the Christmas period. This assertion was then used as the basis for the delivery of a whole series of opinions and beliefs which clearly were the journalist’s own. A quick look at the source data showed that the number was exactly the same as in November, there had just been a temporary decrease over the few weeks over Christmas. Perhaps because more people were on leave or there were closures and shut downs?

The point I want to make isn’t about cases in the workplace, but that the language used and the selective use of data that would lead most people to believe that this was a significant problem and therefore the subsequent beliefs were based on the solid use of empirical evidence. In many ways, the imprecise use of language in this context is of little consequence, other than my annoyance. But when we extend this into the workplace we run the risk of making decisions that have implications for peoples lives.

It isn’t unusual to hear phrases such as, “everybody is up in arms”, or “we’ve been inundated by” or, “nobody likes” (the list isn’t exhaustive, feel free to add your own favourites). Normally followed by a suggestion of an action that needs to be taken…RIGHT NOW! A simple enquiry of, “Everyone?”, “Inundated?” or “Nobody?” is sufficient to start a conversation that leads to better understanding. Who exactly has a problem? What size is it? How many people are really impacted? What is the basis for proportionality?

There will be those that tell you this is the reason we need better data and analytics in the profession and of course this is entirely true. But equally important is the way we describe and interpret them. The way in which we present that data to others and the inference we choose to put upon it. Language is hugely important in work, we can use it as a force for positive change but to do so requires as much thought as any set of data that we share. Being lazy and careless with language simply isn’t acceptable. And if it isn’t acceptable in the world of work, it really shouldn’t be in journalism either – but perhaps their motivation isn’t to help understanding and build knowledge, whereas ours certainly should be.

Lifelong learning

I wrote recently about the perils of organisations delegating responsibility to employees under the guise of empowerment and “individual choice”. Effectively placing every individual at jeopardy to changes in the economy, society and the organisations that they work for. The continued, pernicious rise of neoliberalism in the workplace.

Don’t have enough pension to retire? That’s what you chose.

Don’t have the healthcare provision to cover your operation? That’s what you chose.

Don’t have the skills to make you employable? That’s what you chose.

And it is this last point that I really want to focus on today. Because on one hand I hear organisations constantly talk about particular skill sets being short in supply and then at the same time I see those same organisations making people redundant. Of course, I’m not talking about the impact of Covid-19 here, which has placed so many organisations in exceptional circumstances, this is a pattern that has been ongoing for as long as I’ve been in business.

The simple answer is retraining, a concept that often invokes images of Government schemes and interventions routed in the decline of industrial cities. No mining? Don’t worry we can retrain you as a call centre operative. But of course, retraining and reskilling doesn’t have to be after an employee has ceased to be of “economic value”, in fact I’d argue that it should be significantly before then. If organisations are making people redundant because they don’t have the skills that they need for the future, that’s a failure of the organisation, not the individual.

This is where organisations need to be intervening for the good of their workforce, their communities and for society as a whole. And this is also why individualism once again falls down. You can’t expect any one employee to be able to predict the decline of their particular skill set, or indeed the speed of that decline. Because they simply don’t have the data required. But organisations do.

That’s why we need to see retraining, reskilling and lifelong learning as a fundamental part of the psychological contract, a key tenet of the leadership philosophy of our organisations. It is why the HR profession should spend as much time focusing on internally meeting future skills requirements as it does on identifying the gaps. It is why we need to make careers for life a viable option for anyone who wants it and not look down our nose at those who choose to be a one company employee.

If you’re interested in this topic, you can hear me and others talking about it on Monday 16 November at 10am as part of the CBI@10 series. You can find out more here.