Our debate needs less noise and more thought

In “normal” times, any discussion about the future of work is fraught with danger, the impact of coronavirus on workplaces has added a multiplying factor of one hundred. Disproportionate time and space is given to the voices on the extreme who declare a new dawn, glossing over the inconvenience of the details of the working population and their day to day experience, to outline a dream based on the experience of a tiny minority.

Work has never and will never operate in isolation of society. It is one of the most fundamental factors in both our individual psychology and the communities and societies that we operate within. Like it or not, it is part of who we are. That’s why good work matters and why creating good jobs is of fundamental importance.

The last four or five months have shown us that there are certain industries, professions and sectors that we simply cannot live without. Our emergency services, our carers, our utilities, our farmers and food warehouses, our delivery drivers and distribution and supermarket networks. These are the very workers that have helped us to navigate through the darkest days in many of our living memories.

In any consideration of the future of work, these are the very people and industries that we should be looking to in order to understand how to create a better normal. And yet, the voices that we so often hear are small, inessential technology businesses, employing only a handful of people and with the economic and societal impact of a dried up stain from an over priced mug of chai latte. Naive and oversimplified statements like “knowledge workers can work anywhere and at any time”, are bandied around. Surgeons? Engineers? Physicians? Academics? These are the real knowledge workers.

At the heart of the challenge we face is societal fairness. I’ve long argued that our direction of travel on workplace flexibility has in fact been a polarising and damaging journey. Where flexibility for the privileged means being able to work at home on a Friday and for large parts of our workforce means uncertainty of hours, invasive uses of technology and instability of employment. This has played a significant, contributing factor to many of the problems that we see across our country.

Whatever we do we must not use this inflection point, and I think we can rightly use that term in this context, to focus on one very small group of employees because their voices are the loudest and perhaps most attractive. If we do, we risk further damage to the fabric of society. We should focus the debate with the people that matter most, that make the biggest difference and who we simply cannot do without. We should build our future of work around and in service to them

At this time of year, many of us would normally be heading to find some sun and relaxation by the sea. A familiar sight at beaches across the world, our attention is drawn to the (normally male) holidaymaker sitting at the front of a banana boat, screaming at the top of their voice with the adrenaline and rush of a child high on Skittles. Yet ahead is where the action really is, the speedboat that pulls it along without which the ride would not exist, calmly and diligently going about its business. Less exciting maybe, but undeniably more important.

Why we need a new debate on flexibility

I’ve previously written about how, whatever comes from the pandemic, we will still need to physically come together at work. It is a myth that this is the end of the office and those that follow that line will, in my opinion, soon come to regret it. The other oft heralded statement at the moment is that this is a new dawn for flexibility at work. And whilst I hope it is, it means honestly addressing the inflexible flexibility that has been our model to date.

Our existing model of flexible working is no longer fit for purpose. In many ways, it introduces into work further structured inflexibility that, I’d go as far to say, could be one of the driving factors behind poor productivity. In embracing this, “new dawn” we need to be honest and open in the discussion and lose the emotion that is often raised in critiquing these existing structures.

I wouldn’t mind betting that in most organisations, if you ran the analysis of part time workers, the majority would not be at work on a Friday. As a long time commuter, I’d also add that the volume of (pre-pandemic) workers that “worked from home” also increased on a Friday. Not only is this statistically improbably, it is also unproductive, economically damaging and socially and organisationally inequitable. It isn’t flexibility in any true shape or form.

There is a decent argument to be had for a four day working week. That’s a good way of structuring and organising flexibility within both organisations and nations, but it is planned, thought through and evenly applied to all. But the reality is that the more likely model, at least in the UK, is going to be driven by reduced capacity in buildings through social distancing as well as the social appetite to maintain some of the practices that have been learnt over the last four months.

If we are truly to have a brave conversation about flexibility at work, that probably means throwing out the existing legislation that has led to our weirdly inflexible current situation. It means looking at the working week being seven days rather than five for more than just frontline and operational workers, it means looking at annualised hours, minimum hours contracts, it means dusting off the actually quite brilliant (but much maligned) Taylor report and starting to have a more progressive conversation about solutions that work for both organisations and individuals.

By definition, the presenteeism culture that has pervaded in many workplaces will be rightly challenged, but in using the workspaces for the work that really needs us to come together, so will the inflexible contractual arrangements that so many organisations have introduced in order to try and do the right thing by their workforces. We need to lose our previous grounding in legislative rights and protection and imagine a new world, with new normals and new possibilities.

Simply put, our model of flexible working is neither flexible, nor is it working. It is time for something much, much better.

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.