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.

Lead for the many (and not the few)

It is July 14th, 2015 and, despite the generally good weather, there has been a sudden and heavy downpour. I remember it well because I was on foot making my way to speak at a CIPD event at City Hall. Unfortunately I’d understood County Hall, which is in a completely different part of town and ended up arriving late, drenched and grumpy.

The result of this was a rather dark and pessimistic take on the impact of flexibility on the workplace. Speaking alongside Dave Coplin, who was ebullient with the opportunities, I saw a much more dangerous and divisive trend. At the end of the sessions, I left the venue and skulked off to, once again, be late for a drink with a friend.

Four years later, I am more convinced than ever that the way in which we approach flexibility in the workplace is an exemplar of the way in which we are building a two tier workforce, built by the haves for the haves, designed for the few and not the many (to bastardise the current phrase of a certain political party).

In 2014, when Virgin announced that they were allowing employees to take as much holiday as they wanted, an HR policy decision became front page news. They were following the approach taken by Netflix, amongst others. More recently we’ve seen organisations, include the Wellcome Trust, talk about the introduction of a four day week. When the Virgin story was unpicked, it became clear that it wasn’t actually applicable to all staff, as they said themselves, “[it] permits all salaried staff to take off whenever they want for as long as they want”.

What do Virgin, Netflix and Wellcome Trust all have in common? Simply, and I mean this with the deepest respect, if they didn’t exist no-one would notice. But perhaps more importantly, they have a certain workforce segmentation that more easily allows for the introduction of such policies. They don’t represent the workforce experience of the many.

We don’t have to go far to understand that the use of workforce “flexibility” can be a double edged sword – enforced part time hours, rotating shift patterns, annualised hours and of course, our dear friend, zero hours contracts. The point I was making back in 2015 was that whilst flexibility might be the emancipation of the few, it was potentially the shackles of the many. For every one tech wizard working on their laptop in the Bahamas, there are ten delivery drivers working on a “self employed” basis.

Which is why as a profession we have to be super vigilant of not drinking the Kool Aid. If you believe in good work, you believe in it for all. If you want to drive flexibility, then it starts with individual choice. Across western economies we’ve seen an increased polarisation in our economics, in our politics and in our workplaces. We’ve created inequality and now we are looking to reinforce it.

None of these policies are wrong per se, but the application of them, the thinking behind them and the championing of them is shaped by an unhealthy preference to consider only “knowledge workers” (yes I hate the term too) to be worthy of such freedom. Only when we start to design workplaces that treat workers of all types with equality of treatment will we create organisations which we can proud of. Let’s start with the many and not the few.

NB: The Wellcome Trust actually abandoned their plans after a three month trial describing it as too “operationally complex”. Interestingly, they were brave enough to try and do this for the entire workforce, regardless of role.

Inclusion means acceptance

I’m going to let you in to some secrets, just don’t tell anyone you heard this from me….

  • Not everybody wants to work flexibly. Some people like being in the office every day.
  • There are people who come to work each day for the money. They don’t care who for.
  • Some people don’t want to be promoted, their ambition is to be left alone to do their job.
  • Self development doesn’t have to be about work. Some people learn all the time without you.

I could go on….

The thing is, just because we think it’s valuable, doesn’t mean it is.

As HR professionals, as professionals in the world of work we have to be incredibly careful that we don’t affirm our own and our professional biases on the workplace. We happily argue that we need to be more flexible, that we need to develop flexible organisations, but then we tell people that we’ve benchmarked our pay and that we are a median to top quartile payer and look with disdain at anyone who suggests they should have more. Why is one more important to us than the other?

We talk about inclusivity, without realising that means we need to create the environment that allows people to value the things that we don’t. That it means we need to accept that not everything will conform to the HR 101 Model Workplace and that we will need to accommodate a genuine breadth of needs and requirements.

Who says the person that needs extra money in order to pay for their family to go on holiday is more unreasonable, less worthy or more indulgent than the person who asks for flexible working to spend a day at week at home with theirs?

Who says that the person that comes in at 9 and leaves at 5 and doesn’t want to attend any of the learning and development courses, but spends their evenings learning different languages, has less potential than their colleague that takes any opportunity to advance their career?

When we think about the world of work, when we think about our organisations and workplaces, we need to check ourselves and ask which lens we’re looking through. Are we really making decisions that allow all to benefit? Or just the ones that we agree with.

We are our choices

Can you imagine being told by your supermarket what you had to buy? Or your hairdresser telling you how your hair should be cut? How about local bar or pub deciding what you wanted to drink? I know for one that I wouldn’t put up with it and I guess is that it wouldn’t take long for you to get fed up either.

Because we like the choice. We like the feeling of control. We like to be in charge of our own destiny. Now of course, we could debate for hours, whether we are actually in control, or having the living daylights manipulated out of us on an hourly basis. But stay with me.

It’s well known that the idea of a “war for talent” makes me want to self castrate with a rusty set of hair clippers. I’m also not going to go down the Gen Y debate, because there are too many haters out there and I can’t be arsed.

But. And this is a big but (no jokes please). I do think the relationship is changing between employers and employees.

Yet, so much of what we do is still grounded in the paternalistic past where the boss knew best. How we pay, how we offer benefits, how we train and develop. How we promote and manage careers.

We provide very little choice in organisations, very little flexibility and very little responsibility. Instead we standardise, homogenise, process and commoditise the employment relationship. Partly because it makes things easy for us, partly because it retains control.

But it misses a trick. If the future of employment relationships is less permanent, less linear and generally more two-way. Then shouldn’t we be designing our organisations to genuinely give choice and ownership to employees? Not merely paying lip service to it.

It is nice to talk about the way that management is going to change. The way in which the organisation is going to change. The way in which careers are going to change. But how is the organisational infrastructure going to change and who is thinking about it?

That’s what I’d like to know.