The binary choices and multiple outcomes of flexible working

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A year of unnecessarily binary conversation about work leads inevitably to this. A stupid question. Is Big Tech going off work from home? Betteridge’s Law takes care of that, just as it did another question from 12 months ago. Even though the article is slightly better than the headline, the insistence that the only two choices we have are home or office remains.

The dissonance inherent in such articles seems to arise from the fact that organisations aren’t choosing between just two options. They aren’t “going off working from home” any more than they were going “fully remote” in the first place.

And so, failure to comply with the binary choice set out by the world’s new model army of workplace experts leads to headlines about how Google is ‘rejigging’ remote work (it isn’t), not to mention the  zang tumb tumb response to Goldman Sachs’ rejection of the ‘new normal’. Goldman Sachs has a toxic workplace culture regardless of its setting, and even that might serve a purpose according to Scott Galloway in this conversation with Bruce Daisley.

One of the people who could have cut through all of this is Lucy Kellaway, but she had already taken the rather wonderful decision to train as a teacher. She popped up briefly in the FT last May to remind people that they needed to work together because they were still human beings, but her bright prose and ability to cut through the crap has been badly missed.

Most of what passes for work in offices is pretty meaningless, and the best way to kid yourself it matters is to do it alongside other people intent on doing the same

‘The most important thing — which should make the office less an employer’s white elephant than its biggest bargain — is that it gives work its meaning. Most of what passes for work in offices is pretty meaningless, and the best way to kid yourself it matters is to do it alongside other people intent on doing the same. Even in interesting jobs like journalism, meaning comes largely from physical proximity to your colleagues. After six weeks of writing in her own bedroom, one friend reports: “I’m churning out the same old articles as before, only now I no longer give a crap”.’

This raises the interesting idea of the office as a signifier of status. I think we’ll be hearing a lot more about this.  I’ve pondered recently that a desk will son be offered as a perk – maybe it already has – but there is a broader hierarchical issue which is raised in The Economist.

‘If the hybrid model is nevertheless here to stay that may be because it, too, reinforces existing trends. First, many employees were “working from home” before covid-19, answering emails and phone calls at night and on weekends. Lockdowns have further blurred the distinction between work and leisure. In a study by the Royal Society of Public Health 56% of employees said they found it harder to switch off when working remotely. And a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development found that 30% of British employees felt they worked more hours at home.

The hybrid model may speed up another trend—the divide between white-collar workers who get to exercise flexibility and the much larger group of service-sector employees who have flexibility imposed on them in the form of zero-hours contracts.”

This is already manifesting, for example in the case of call centre workers who now have their behaviour monitored by webcam. No doubt these people have been sold the idea of working from home as a form of flexibility. And it sort of is, sort of isn’t. It certainly isn’t the same sort of flexibility enjoyed by people who can choose how, where and when to work. It’s safe to assume this will include the people who ordered the webcams.

We need a much better conversation about this stuff. We need to stop assuming that everybody is an executive with a well-established network and career, spacious house and stable family life commuting into London every day from Harpenden. We need to accept there are more than two choices facing people and organisations, and whatever choice they make might be the best for them right now. We need to accept that we are human beings. We need to accept that flexibility might mean inflexibility. We need to accept that culture rather than setting defines most people’s experience of work. And we need to accept that small changes can transform people’s working lives just as easily as total change.