“It's time for everyone to get off their lazy backsides - and their Pelotons - and get back to the office!” screams a headline in a Daily Mail article by Lord Alan Sugar, best known these days as the host of the UK version of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice, telling hopefuls: “you’re fired.” Sugar wants an immediate end to Working From Home (WFH), with everyone back in the office under the watchful eye of the boss.
He says that full time office presence is necessary to reboot businesses. It is also necessary that workers get back into city centres to support coffee shops, newsagents, hairdressers, and dry cleaners. To put it another way. Sugar wants a return to the “commuter society” on which the “coffee shop economy” is dependent.
It is a point of view. It is not one I share because it seems to be built on the idea that only if the "boss" is watching you are you productive. Otherwise, you will "skive off". It is also full of public-sector bashing. Ironically, with his Amstrad computers, Lord Sugar help start the digital revolution that has made WFH possible. The noble lord says that “your mum and dad” did not work from home, so neither should you.
But just because your "mum and dad" worked in an old-fashioned way does not mean that you should do so. Technology constantly allows the way we work to be organised differently, and better. The old ways were not always the best. Some of the "old ways" were downright inhuman. Is anyone still on for sending children up a chimney? Was coal-mining a healthy profession? Should we still use a quill pen? Would an Amstrad computer not be better? Do they still make Amstrads? Never mind. There are excellent computers available from Apple and HP.
Sugar further argues that office life is essential to spark ideas and creativity through casual interactions and accidental encounters.
I don't buy this idea that we all have to be in the office all the time to spark ideas and creativity. Did Picasso have to drop by the office? Or Le Carré? Or any of the multitude of writers, painters and sculptors who worked in solitude to produce great art? Did Da Vinci get the idea for the Mona Lisa from a workmate over an espresso in the Piazza Della Signoria in Florence? “Hey, Leonardo, see that woman over there. Make a great painting.” Didn’t think so.
A lot of the case against WFH comes down to a claim that it’s killing small businesses like coffee shops that depend on passing footfall. Maybe so. But new businesses are being created as those who work from home create new demands. And for every central city coffee shop that dies, a new one opens somewhere else as people move elsewhere.
We need to create the future. Not return to the past. Over the past two months, 51 companies participated in a Massachusetts Business Roundtable membership survey that looked at the challenges facing local employers when it comes to hiring and retaining office workers post-pandemic. The survey shows that managers know they need to be flexible, or they risk losing workers or struggling to hire. But they also want some in-office contact, in part to help foster the kind of teamwork and collaboration that helps employees feel connected to their companies. Read a report on the survey in the Boston Globe here
Published on: May 11, 2022
Authors: Tom Hayes
Director of European Union and Global Labor Affairs, HR Policy AssociationContact Tom Hayes LinkedIn