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.

Silence and hope

I’ve been writing on at least a weekly basis for over ten years, only taking time off for holidays, yet last week I didn’t write. And this morning as I sat down again, the overwhelming desire was to stay silent again. Whilst I’m hardly the Boston Globe, it just feels like the world doesn’t need another opinion.

I can’t believe you’re writing about x whilst y is happening.

I can’t believe you’re not writing about x whilst y is happening.

In the UK especially, our rhetoric, or dialogue and debate has, over the last 5 years become increasingly one of polarised anger. That anger has rolled across multiple topics, all just, all deserving of focus, but increasingly expressed in outrage. Fuelled by our social media habits, surrounding ourselves with like minded views, blocking those that disagree.

There are of course many balanced views, those that seek to understand, those that seek to find the data and information, to explore concepts, to research the history, to think, reflect, ask questions, seek to explore the contrary opinion. But there are also those that seek to shout, to point fingers, to accuse, to remain indignant regardless.

And there is so little change. So very little change. Just more anger, more division, more separation, more sadness, less hope. I cannot help, for example, to think of all the energy, all the action and outpouring of emotion that went into the anti-Brexit campaign but to absolutely no avail. What if that had been used more constructively, more directly, more positively to change the lives of young people in our society? What could that have achieved? This isn’t a political point, I’m a fervent Remainer.

As I sit here, it feels we need less opinions and more positive action. Less debate, less anger, more intervention and ultimately more hope.

Injustice is at the heart of this crisis

I’ve written so many times over the past years about social inequality and the role that organisations need to play in starting to right the wrongs of many decades of looking the other way. Whether that has been through investment in skills and training, fairer recruitment or simply through the ways in which we contract and pay employees.  If it was an imperative before, it now becomes an obligation.

“People living in more deprived areas have experienced COVID-19 mortality rates more than double those living in less deprived areas. General mortality rates are normally higher in more deprived areas, but so far COVID-19 appears to be taking them higher still.”

Nick Stripe, Head of Health Analysis, Office for National Statistics.

The fact that the mortality rate is more than double in deprived areas is a stark reminder of the systemic issues the underly areas of deprivation.  And whilst there is no more sombre measure of inequality than death, The impact of the virus won’t be simply contained to mortality.

As schools are closed, there is a disproportionate effect on those children living in deprived areas. Their access to technology, the role of parents and relatives in home schooling and the greater risk of disenfranchisement has been raised by the inspector of schools. It won’t just impact on those taking qualifications, but could impact throughout schooling, leading to growing attainment gaps for a number of years.

And of course, we mustn’t forget the impact on the labour market. Which will disproportionately impact on those in low paid, low skilled jobs.

“Some workers are disproportionally economically impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. Low paid workers are more likely to work in shut down sectors and less likely to be able to work from home. According to the IFS, one third of employees in the bottom 10% of earners work in shut down sectors, and less than 10% of the bottom half of earners say they can work from home.”

Commons Research Briefing CBP-8898

Health outcomes, Educational outcomes, Employment outcomes. Three of the factors that are fundamental to restricting social mobility. And that is before we look at the disproportionate impact on BAME communities and the overlap between ethnicity and deprivation – which we absolute cannot ignore.

So when we are talking about the future of work, when we make statements about the structural change of workplaces, let’s try and take our thinking beyond the offices of the secure, educated and highly paid. Let’s put aside broadly inessential discussions about flexible and home working arrangements and how Zoom and Teams are going to be part of everyone’s lives. Instead let us start to debate the issues of fundamental, structural inequality and how we as businesses can step up and take our share of responsibility for the sake of our society, our economy and our future.

What next?

It was noticeable last week that the conversations across organisations and networks started to shift from how we “endure/survive” the current situation to how we “recover” (with no intention to be insensitive through language). Shaped in the context of the debate about  the possible lifting of restrictions,

Understandably, we focus on the short term. What will social distancing mean for our organisations? Will there be different expectations on work spaces? How will people feel about travelling on public transport? What will we do about childcare and schools? Can we afford the current workforce?

And whilst we will need to answer all of these questions, whilst we will need to understand the practical implications. At the same time, there are perhaps more serious, longer term considerations that will come to test us.

The economic impact of the virus will be long term, not just for the organisations that have had to close their doors, lay off their workers or close down. But in the money that Government has invested to respond to the current situation. A generation could be set back by the financial burden, as we saw in the financial crisis.

And whilst we can’t definitively know, opinions on life, society and the economy will also be shaped by the experience we are having. There will be the demand for change, a level of recrimination, but hopefully too things that we have observed and experienced that will act as a future force for good.

As I’ve said multiple times, organisations are in effect a microcosm of society, we exist in a bubble at our peril. The debate will ultimately involve us having to explore our social purpose, consider issues of equity and fairness, challenge us on the treatment of all our stakeholder groups and in some cases require fundamental change and adaptation.

In many ways, the challenge for leaders is far from coming to an end, and not just because restrictions will go on for some time,  it is just starting. The virus and our ability to respond and manage it is one thing, the likely change it drives in society will raise a whole other series of fundamental, ethical and structural challenges.