Don’t be a commute Canute, Boris

So, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has told the British people to get back to work by Christmas. This  means that millions would be renewing their season tickets, getting up in darkness to dress up for work, crowding onto those trains, buses and tubes while swaddled in facemasks and battling their way into the office (which for the time being will be a pretty dull experience with social distancing).

A large body of research, undertaken right around the world, says the same thing – people are demanding higher levels of flexibility from their employers in relation to the time, places and ways they work. In our studies with numerous clients over the last 10 years this trend has been visible for all to see.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]People are demanding higher levels of flexibility in relation to the time, places and ways they work[/perfectpullquote]

The difference is that now people are not dreaming of the possibility, they have actually tasted it and it’s been pretty good for many. Indeed, some of those people are the very leaders who were blocking working from home before Covid and have now turned positive when shown the cost, employee satisfaction and productivity benefits.

The truth is that the Covid-19 Lockdown has given people an insight into a different life  – one with potentially less travel, greater flexibility and a far better work-life balance. Of course, the experience people have had varies depending upon your home facilities, personality, job and social needs, but for the majority the upside of less office time is pretty clear. Yes, we’re hearing of ‘Zoom Burnout’ and of course people are yearning for social ‘face to face in the same place’ contact. But that can be fixed by organisations and employees shifting to new ways of managing their time and affairs.


The Genie is out

From a business standpoint, leaders are seeing reduced facilities costs and a reduced carbon footprint with no negative impact on the quality and quantity of work produced. Not surprisingly they are seriously wondering whether they can run their businesses in ‘virtual’ – or largely ‘virtual’ mode for the long term.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Instead of investing in HS2, build out the world’s best high bandwidth telecoms infrastructure[/perfectpullquote]

Boris, I’m afraid the Genie is out of the bottle. Regardless of your ‘instruction’ to go back to the office, many people and organisations have discovered the potency and efficacy of their new lives.

So what should government be doing?

Well, the first thing would be to recognise that the world has changed fundamentally and adapt to the new reality, developing a strategy to modernise the UK’s ‘work infrastructure’. Instead of investing in HS2, build out the world’s best high bandwidth telecoms infrastructure so that everyone has a great, affordable high-speed internet connection at a low cost wherever they live (HSi if you like).

Second, give all kids a laptop and provide training to use them – a Chromebook for every 13-year-old would cost less than £1 billion a year.

Third, start working on the reinvention of the high street converting retail to residential, ‘social experience’ shopping and ‘mini-WeWorks’ for workers who want the office experience without the commute.

Organisations should be upgrading their IT Infrastructures, moving their information management on-line using tools such as Teams, Slack and Workplace, getting rid of the need for signatures and paper, retraining leaders and teams to give the them the skills to deliver high performance while operating predominantly virtually, re-thinking their benefits packages and culture for an online world. And insofar as the physical workplace, they should be taking a long hard look at what office space they really need and what it should to achieve through a forensic, business unit by business unit analysis of need.

If we embrace the change that is clearly here, we can use the energy and time to drive the UK economy to a digital future. It’s time to go back to the future not the past this Christmas, Boris. Don’t be a commute Canute.

Image: Death of Saint Canute by Christian Albrecht von Benzon (1843)