I hope you didn’t spend too much on your home office. The corporate fightback against working from home is in full swing, led by corporate landlords, Elon Musk, and weirdly, the Daily Telegraph, who have an entire section of their website dedicated to telling readers how lazy homeworkers are responsible for the UK’s current ills.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Elon Musk is making headlines with his infamous memo, indicating that working from home is fine, once forty hours have been completed in the office. For a man who’s still trying to get the self-driving part of his self-driving cars to work, this may be a big mistake. Artificial intelligence experts are in short supply, even in Silicon Valley, and it appears they quite enjoy home working.
Apple recently went into full reverse ferret on their mandatory return to the office after their director of machine learning, Ian Goodfellow, resigned in protest at the policy. Goodfellow was unsurprisingly and immediately snapped up by Google, and before enterprising Google recruiters had a chance to do too much damage to Apple’s disaffected AI team the iPhone maker hit pause on the policy, although grumblings (and rumours of anonymous letters to executives) persist.
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Laziness or Exhaustion
Of course, there are disadvantages to homeworking. We’ve probably not gathered enough evidence yet to see if it does indeed prevent younger workers learning from more experienced colleagues. We also know that it doesn’t suit everyone; some research I previously commissioned found that different personality types faced very different challenges when it came to hybrid working.
There’s also the economic challenge. We’re going through a rapid shift in where people spend their days and their money. Businesses reliant on ‘office’ traffic, especially in the hospitality sector, but also retail, have lost footfall. The economies of scale that allow them to operate in densely occupied spaces simply can’t be supported in the ‘dormitory’ towns and villages where people now spend their days.
It’s this rapid change that has led to the emerging PR campaign of ‘lazy’ references to homeworking. Pre-pandemic we saw productivity sit at an immovable constant, defying any attempt to improve it, regardless of how much time we spent in offices. Lord Sugar, of ‘well, that’s not a lawful reason for dismissal’ fame, likes to use the ‘L word’ regularly on Twitter and newspaper articles, although his opposition to home working is surely unrelated to AMSprop Estates’ many investments in prime city centre offices.
A similarly simple explanation explains the Telegraph’s editorial stance. The Telegraph owning Barclay Brothers have invested heavily in the London hotel market, and falling demand for commercial property coupled with decreased need for business stays can’t be good for business. And no doubt people no longer needing to drive to work has a substantial impact on the plans of the world’s most valuable car manufacturer.
Because actually, the evidence suggests otherwise. Commuting is exhausting, and means workers start work fatigued. Reduced commuting supports healthier lifestyles as workers are able to trade commuting time for healthier activities – and yes, getting enough sleep is a healthy activity. I can only presume that ‘laziness’ is inversely measured by exhaustion.
Too often the clamour over working from home seems to be ‘yes for me, but not for thee’. Take the recent headline “We’re paying the price for the cult of idleness” – yes the Telegraph, and yes about people having the temerity to want alternative working patterns. The author writes a number of regular columns and has published over half a dozen books and musicals; it’s unlikely they do this alongside colleagues in an office.
There’s already an inherent classism around hybrid working, which will take time to resolve. It’s absolutely easier to work from a dedicated office than the kitchen counter or a dressing table, and I’m sure that no one would deny that this has an impact on efficiency.
There’s a definite opportunity for casual co-working spaces to proliferate where people reside, rather than where organisations are based, but this will take time. WeWork’s well known struggles have dampened the appetite for investment in this area, but both councils (as part of the levelling up funding) and local business groups such as chambers of commerce could provide an anchor for local schemes.
This would also nurture networking and mentorships with the people that hybrid workers work alongside, rather than just their colleagues. For employers who prefer to live in their ideal world rather than the real one, this raises big red flags around talent being poached, organisational secrets being leaked and employees not being fully devoted to their employer. But only if they’re unaware of existing concepts like ‘the recruitment industry’, ‘LinkedIn’ and ‘work-life balance’.
The benefits to this could be huge. Community projects would be revitalised by local talent networks, as well as a more diverse volunteer base. Like local politics, many projects and volunteer groups are usually dominated by the time-rich; usually retirees. My own local council recently moved its meetings from 7pm to 2pm, as it was more convenient for the majority of (non-working, non-child-caring) councillors. Removing the commute opens opportunities for younger and more diverse groups to become more involved.
So what can you do?
Consult with employees. Everyone needs different levels of support and finding out what works shouldn’t just be a job for line managers. Having several different ‘default’ working patterns, with the flexibility to adjust each to the employee’s and employer’s needs, allows HR to maintain structure and policy whilst supporting hybrid working arrangements.
Identify opportunities for collaboration. This could involve arranging local (optional) meetups for employees living close to one another or co-working days. These sessions drive creativity and innovation and are a great way to break down organisational silos and build relationships.
Gather evidence. If or when a CEO may want to change working patterns, they will be asking HR to assess the impact. We’re at an excellent point to be gathering evidence on how well (or not) working patterns are working. As Apple found, highly valuable employees may feel particularly strongly about the issue and being able to give a fully informed evaluation will be important.
Our experienced consultants can help you implement a hybrid working strategy that’s tailored for you, your workforce and the people you need to attract.