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 answer probably isn’t simple

I’ve been writing a blog now for over ten years and over that period I’ve received praise, criticism, support, detraction and sometimes even hate. I often read comments or statements where people ask why anyone bothers blogging anymore, probably much easier to record a film of yourself just out of the gym and post it on LinkedIn.

Smashing it…

For me this has always been a way to set out thoughts or ideas that are buzzing around my head. Incomplete and sometimes inarticulate explorations of something that I’m trying to work out. My average post is about 400-500 words, so you’re never going to explore an idea fully in that space, but maybe set people off thinking too.

Sometimes I sit and write something that I know is going to be awkward. Over the years you develop a sense of the topics that tend to get people het up. The ones where there is a defined collective view that you’re questioning, or the topics where we are being overly British and avoiding. Sometimes the topics feel benign, but then hit a nerve.

Mostly the people that read these articles are people interested in the world of work, leadership, culture and human resource management. People that would espouse the exchanging of ideas, the ability to express unpopular views, the creation of environments that are open and challenging. “There’s no such thing as a stupid question”, how many times have we heard that?

Today as I write this, for very different reasons, people are talking about kindness. There are numerous statements about just “being kind”. And I’m struck by the incredible tension that sits behind such a blanket statement. Be kind to everyone? The rapist? The terrorist? The domestic abuser? Or just the ones that we feel sorry for.

Last week I wrote that if we are serious about inclusion, we have to consider inclusion for all. I can’t help feel that there is a similar tension here. When we start to apply our own filters, our own rules, our own personal criteria then by definition we introduce a level of discrimination to our original assumption. Which is perhaps absolutely fine, perhaps absolutely human, but should come with a level of honesty, rather than a false image of purity.

If we are genuinely interested in creating better working cultures, better environments, event a society that is better for all. If we want these things then we need to understand that the answers are more likely to be found in messy compromise than clarity of simple assertion, that they are more likely to involve us having to calibrate our own beliefs and opinions as much as anyone else.

I’ll leave you with this from Barack Obama, which sums it up nicely.

“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly,”

“The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.”

How not to screw up your holiday

As the schools start to break up, we are in to peak holiday season with workers and their families looking to take some well deserved time off. And for all our talk about flexible working, four day weeks and remote working, there’s are a number of things that we can all do to support our colleagues when they (or we) are on holiday.

If you’re starting to think about the warmth, the smell of suncream and the thought of a cool drink by a pool, try to spend a little bit of time also thinking about your co-workers who are staying behind.

  1. Do a proper handover –  the good old fashioned handover is a thing of beauty when done well, because it allows you and your colleagues to relax and enjoy their break. But I can tell you now that you won’t be able to remember everything you need to convey in the last five minutes before you leave the building. Start a week or two before to list down the things that are ongoing, worrying you or lily to occur and then plan good time in with the people that you need to tell.
  2. Work until the end – of course you’re excited about your holiday, that’s entirely normal. But it starts when you finish work and finishes when you start work. Your co-workers aren’t in the same fortunate position as you (although they may be soon enough!) so remember to pull your weight right through until the last. Last minute online holiday shopping can be done after work, but don’t worry you’re still allowed to show your pics off when you get back – just not for the next two weeks!
  3. Remember you’re on holiday – some of us like to interfere and been involved in pretty much everything, even when we are on holiday. But here is the deal, you’re either in or you’re out and doing the workplace version of the Can-Can is not ok. Decisions will be made without you, conversations will take place, you’re surrounded by capable colleagues, so let them do their jobs.

But of course, if we all want to have a happy and harmonious holiday period then it isn’t just the person going on leave that needs to watch out. Those of us left in the workplace need to play by some basic rules too (remembering this will come back on us at some point too).

  1. Don’t forget to hold the baby – which I’m using as an idiom, unless you happen to work in a nursery or kindergarten, in which case in the literal sense as well. We are all busy with our own work and responsibilities, but in order for everyone to have a decent break and not regret it when they get back, we all need to pick up the slack. So if your colleague asks you to look after something when they’re away, don’t forget to do so.
  2. Don’t rely on your memory – a lot can happen in two weeks and if your colleague is off for that length of time, you’re probably not going to remember everything that has happened that would be useful for them to know. I”m not talking about the water cooler gossip, but the stuff that makes work easier. So make some notes as you go along and, just like the handover, make sure that there is time set aside to bring them properly up to speed.
  3. “I know you’re on holiday but…” – I’ve written before about the toxicity of this statement, but I want to focus on the more general point here. If someone is on holiday, they’re on holiday. If you can’t operate the business without them for a couple of weeks, then there is something pretty wrong with your organisation. Unless it is an absolute crisis, leave them be to get a break and come back as a rested, happier and more productive colleague.

 

Have a great holiday when you get there. Whilst I won’t be on holiday, I’ll be back on the blog in September.

You’ve got to buy a ticket

When we want things to change, we need to act. There is no circumstance where this applies more than in the culture of the teams and organisations that we work in.

Ultimately culture is a reflection of all of our actions, all of our behaviours and all of our shared beliefs and opinions. It is a reflection of us. Which means if we’re not happy with how things are, we need to start by asking what we can change.

Before you start to tell me that individuals can’t change the organisation, of course to some extent that is true. But we can each change the way that we show up, the way that we are and the way that we interact with others. We can’t change the whole, but we can change our impact.

There is no point in complaining about how things are, unless you’re willing to help make a change. There is no point in wanting things to be different, unless you’re willing to make that so.

It reminds me of a joke that I head a number of years ago in an entirely different context:

A little down on his luck, Joe decides to ask God for help. He begins to pray…

“God, please help me. These last few years have been tricky for me and it’s about time I had a bit luck. I’ve never asked you for much, but I need my life to change. So God, please let me win the lottery.”

Lottery night comes and somebody else wins it.

Joe again prays…

“God, I’m going to ask you again. I need my luck to change. Please let me win the lottery!”

Lottery night comes and Joe still has no luck.

Once again, he prays…

“My God, why have you forsaken me??  I don’t often ask you for help and I have always been a good servant to you. PLEASE just let me win the lottery this one time so I can get my life back in order.”

Suddenly there is a blinding flash of light as the heavens open and Joe is confronted by the voice of God Himself: “Joe, meet me halfway on this. Buy a ticket.”

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