We’re stuck inside our own debate (again)

When you think the biggest contribution you have to make to your organisation is a debate on how many days office workers should be in the office, you know you’ve failed as a profession. Sorry, I want to find a nicer way of saying that, but I just can’t.

This isn’t a new thing, just the latest of a long history of internally focused, self obsessed initiatives that have failed to add little value to organisations, society or the communities we serve. Remember when everything was about “disruption”? As I said at the time, nobody wants to be disrupted and the last two years have proved that to be the case. Can’t get on a plane for your holiday because there are no ground staff? Can’t get a train to get to work because of industrial action? Welcome to disruption.

And then of course we were going to blow up performance management and appraisals. Remember that? Because of course, the most existential challenge and issue your organisation faces right now is the number of performance categories you have and the best way to change behaviour is always to change the form…

When I wrote a ten point agenda for change four or five years ago it was more a cathartic reaction to another pointless news story about the profession that came about because of our singular ability to stand for anything other than the protection of our own working practices and self interest. And whilst I come across more and more HR professionals that “get it”, the majority of the profession is still well and truly sucked into it’s own navel.

The instinct of most in the face of criticism is to try to do stuff to be popular, but if our fundamental drive is to be liked we are destined to fail like anyone in a leadership position. One of the confusions we have about our political system is we think politicians are there to do what we want them to do, democracy is about listening to views and opinions not simply doing the thing that most people say they want. When you do that you become insular and so focused on the internal zeitgeist that you lose sight of the greater purpose – such is the case in many organisations too.

And that is where too many HR functions are right now, with not a single eye on the outside, the big macro changes in the economy, in society, that will provide challenges for our organisations tomorrow, next year and for many years to come. Those are the debates we should be raising with our executive teams and boards, those are the things that demonstrate our true value as a profession, those are the things that will fundamentally make a difference to the long term organisational success.

I saw a stat this weekend that really shook me. In the UK, only 59% of the adult population have incomes high enough to pay tax. Ask yourself a question. What is your organisation doing to tackle that?

The P&O scandal shines a light on our privileged view of work

Like many, I was pretty gobsmacked by the brazen approach of the P&O CEO Peter Hebblethwaite in addressing a parliamentary select committee last week. If you’re unaware of the story, it broke a couple of weeks ago when P&O effectively fired a quarter of their workforce with immediate effect via video. And, unsurprisingly, there was widespread outrage from politicians, the media, trade unions and employer groups. Rightly so, these were acts that even if the law was taken out of consideration were highly immoral and unethical.

But the fact these made headlines, these are just the actions of a rogue organisation, right? Sadly not.

Before I go on to make my main point, I want to stop for a second and clarify something that I think is important to the context of the argument. There is an intellectual difference between believing something is wrong or right and believing it is the principal argument that needs to be had, right here and right now. In a world full of opinions, but limited space and time, our job as leaders is to curate all of those multiple points and focus on the ones that matter the most, for our teams, for our organisations and, for society. The ones that matter to the majority.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the world of work and creating a sustainable future we fail to do this. That’s why you’ll find the last twelve months littered with articles and opinion pieces about flexible working, working from home, remote working, hybrid working, the four day week and more and why you’ll find little on the increasing practice of fire and rehire.

What is beneath this? Well the first set of issues relate predominantly to white collar, professional workers and the latter to blue collar skilled or manual workers. It is simple as that. And yet the latter group make up a much more significant proportion of the workforce. So as leaders and HR professionals we focus on the things that matter to us personally, and the journalists write about the ones that matter too them. Curiously there is a significant overlap.

I’ve spoken before about my concerns about restructuring work without thinking about the majority of workers and the communities that they live in and I stand by these concerns because they are very real and pressing. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in progress in the workplace or moving towards a different more flexible future, I just don’t think it is the most pressing issue that we face in our societies and in our workplaces, right here and right now.

If the P&O situation tells us anything, it is that for many of us our view of work is shaped by a privilege afforded by position. These practices have existed for years (Irish Ferries did something incredibly similar in 2005) and they’re going on in organisations today. And of course, this is just one of the unfairnesses that exists in work. If we believe in creating a future that is better, that is supportive of all and that creates the kind of organisations that we would be proud that our grandchildren work in, we would be better starting there rather than feathering our own, already comfortable nests.

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.