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.

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.

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.

There is much to take from The Taylor Review

Last week saw the publication of the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices. Inevitably it made headlines and drew attention to a number of high-profile ongoing debates – not least the “gig economy” and the challenge of flexibility. Perhaps unsurprisingly it also managed to draw criticism from both the trade unions and some within the business community – I generally think anything that fails to appease two potentially opposing groups must have something interesting and progressive about it.

The debate about work, the future of work and the working practices that we want to encourage in the UK is one that weaves a tricky path between those that argue for deep legislative protection for employees and those that argue for total liberalisation of the employment market. The answer almost certainly lies somewhere in the middle and navigating the world of compromise and pragmatic outcomes is always harder than taking a simplistic, dogmatic position. It is always much easier to highlight the issues that aren’t solved, than to look at the solutions that are actually proposed.

The report is over 100 pages and yet most of the reporting focused on relatively small sections and all in all there is much to be commended in the review. It provides one of the most balanced, thoughtful and helpful assessments of the challenges of developing an economy whilst maintaining good work and working lives – particularly in a world post membership of the European Union.

The definition and scoping of “good work” aims to take the debate beyond simple wage growth or contractual status – but without suggesting that they’re not important. Like the political manifestos of all major parties, it recognises the importance of employee voice and participation within the workplace and discusses the importance of work life balance and working conditions.

The section on learning and skills and employability is one that has had perhaps the least attention but is perhaps one of the strongest. Let me give you three direct excerpts:

On education policy: “Government should use its convening power to bring together employers and the education sector to develop a consistent strategic approach to employability and lifelong learning. This should cover formal vocational training, ‘on the job’ learning and development, lifelong learning and informal learning outside work. It could be linked to the longer-term development of life-time digital individual learning records. As part of this, the Government should seek to develop a uni ed framework of employability skills and encourage stakeholders to use this framework.”

On careers education: “In developing a national careers strategy, the Government should pay particular attention to how those in low paid and atypical work are supported to progress. It should take a well-rounded approach, promoting the role of high-quality work experience and encounters at different education stages.”

On unpaid internships: “The Government should ensure that exploitative unpaid internships, which damage social mobility in the UK, are stamped out. The Government should do this by clarifying the interpretation of the law and encouraging enforcement action taken by HMRC in this area.”

The Taylor Review doesn’t answer every question on the future of work, but it provides an incredibly helpful, thoughtful and balanced starting point. It is beholden on all of us associated with and interested in the UK economy, productivity and good work to take the outputs of the review and to build on them to develop our country’s approach to work. There is much good within the review and much to consider, we mustn’t lose this amongst the faff and nonsense of special interest groups concerned with looking after their own, increasingly dated agendas.