Paul Hargreaves: To go or not to go…back to the office
In the week that the government urged all workers back to the office and then seemed to change their mind yet again, many companies are thinking about what the world of work looks like post #Covid. Some businesses have already announced that they will not allow anyone back to the office until January and others have given notice to their landlord that they will not be renewing their leases if they run out this year or next. CEOs and leaders of businesses throughout the UK are asking questions about what the right approach for their companies is.
Perhaps a more pertinent question is why have more workers not been allowed to work flexibly before the #pandemic. Of course, more open-minded and caring companies have allowed this for years, but most have not in the UK. Why not? The technology for video calls has been around for more than fifteen years. I was ‘Skyping’ my children when abroad in 2005. Video conferences with 100 participants have been possible since 2006, so why has it taken this current crisis for bosses to embrace technology that has been around for years?
Possibly bosses have had shares in transport or oil companies or perhaps they have tended towards sadistic tendencies forcing their people to travel for an hour or more to do stuff they could have done at home. Unlikely in both cases. I believe it comes down to one simple word: trust. Or rather lack of it. Most managers have simply not trusted their people to work their allotted hours or work effectively at home believing them to take any opportunity to take advantage of the situation.
This control freakism has been shown to be a myth during the #lockdown in 2020. Some of those distrusting managers or companies have seen their team’s productivity increase significantly during the pandemic. It has been obvious to others that their teams are working longer hours than before with all the extra time released not commuting. Others are as perplexed as I am wondering why there hasn’t been more permission for flexible working in the past. Others are now feeling rather silly for turning down requests for parents to work more flexibly in previous years.
There has indeed been some extreme silliness around in some company cultures. I know one multi-national company with an office in Liverpool that until recently insisted that their account managers came to the office in the morning before going out to see customers, even if this meant travelling 20 miles in the wrong direction. You will understand the extreme nature of the culture there if I tell you that they enforced the wearing of suits and if anyone was to arrive wearing brown shoes, they were sent home!
So, is the right course of action to ditch all company offices and HQs and have everyone working from home for ever? I don’t think so. And I say that as the CEO of a company that has seen 50% growth since March with only 3% more people across the company. I do think that small start-up teams would do well to work virtually and save a lot of cost, but I also think that once companies grow to a certain size a degree of gathering together physically is important, both as a whole company and as individual teams.
Why do I think this? First, to have a strong company with a purposeful culture there is a sense that the culture is caught and developed by bouncing off each other in non-scheduled interactions. The office banter, the casual conversation over coffee or lunch, the idea that comes about through hearing another’s conversation. These are all more difficult to re-create in a ‘working from home’ environment. One of the reasons we have had an extraordinarily good period during these difficult times is due to our strong, energetic and purposeful culture. We were strong together and have remained strong throughout the pandemic, but we are missing each other after several months apart.
Secondly, for many people the workplace is an important part of their community. Sadly, many people do not live in a strong community, and despite the sense of community growing in their locality for some, the office is an important safe place for many, where they can share their difficulties and stresses in life with others and feel encouraged and supported. There is no doubt, that for those living on their own, this is even more important, but I believe it is important for the mental health of everyone to some degree.
Thirdly, and related to the first two, having a place to learn is important for newcomers to a business or organisation. We have taken on two new people during the pandemic, one of new position and the other a replacement and it is easier for newbies to imbibe culture and mission when they are interacting with the whole team. They learn better and feel connected more quickly.
So, what are we going to do? Our plan is that everyone in the company will move to flexible working with some of the week at home and some of the week at the office. (If they want to be in the office permanently that is also an option until we run out of hot desks.) We will never buy another desktop computer in the life of the company either. I believe that, this way, we achieve the best of both worlds for our people, and their families and the company.
Curiously this is what I have done for 21 years, initially by necessity having four young children to look after, but in recent years by choice. Two or three days at home and the rest in the office. So maybe I am not such a quick learner after all!