As we ponder the lifting of enforced home working and a return to dormant offices, we have an opportunity to start again and do it better this time, says Robert Bruce
This article was first published in the July/August 2020 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
Well, that’s it for the summer. Normally at this time, with this column to stretch across the summer break, we would be talking of strategy, long-term thoughts as we take our few short weeks in the sun, our view of the world stretching even further away than the edge of the infinity pool.
But the world is, as we have been learning since February, upside down. Musing quietly on our future is not on the agenda. But what we are learning is how it is possible to think all manner of previously unthinkable things as our world dislocates all around us. We may not be able to think too straight as we hold meetings on Zoom while trying to keep the kids occupied and quiet elsewhere, and then do the day’s work and the reports that need to be written, all late at night or before sunrise. But out of the chaos, both in our own homes and in the world outside, come thoughts of what the future will look like.
I suspect the quote of the lockdown will come back to bite Jes Staley, the CEO at Barclays. Doubtless he will say that he was simply preparing the ground. But ‘putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past’ became a memorable though possibly counter-productive thought to hang over the summer.
Underlying the idea is a logic. Large office buildings don’t work if we all wear masks and are paranoid about other people coming too close. And they had become unpleasant places to be even before the pandemic. But that was mostly because of the systematic stripping out of personal, or indeed any, desk space in favour of the unpopular hotdesking model. People couldn’t get satisfying work done in the stripped-down office space available once they had commuted in. And they couldn’t get satisfying work done at home either, though it was a much more pleasant environment.
The reason for that was simple. It came down to lack of human contact. The social glue that keeps teams together starts to come unstuck. The messaging that comes from body language is diluted or non-existent on conference calls and Zoom experiences. And the quiet chats about the real issues – that take place on the stairs, by the printer or in the café round the corner – vanish. Casual conversations and social networks fall away. And this is true in all areas where tricky issues need to be negotiated or simply discussed, or where one person wants to feed a quiet thought or an off-the-record idea to another. Connections become impossible.
It is not just business; it is politics too. A friend talks of how impossible it is proving to negotiate Brexit by Zoom. There aren’t the cappuccino or Pils breaks where the deals are really done, and everything on Zoom is minuted and doesn’t allow for secret alliances and back-room compromises. Pretending we all live in a virtual world simply doesn’t work.
Working in a home office is too distanced. The stimulus of the rest of the team you work with evaporates. The Anglo-Saxon business world calls it ‘working from home’, which makes it sound logical, sensible and, well, workable. The French call it télétravail, which makes it sound much more drudge-like.
None of this chimes with the ideas coming out of the great coronavirus experience. People are genuinely looking forward to increased sustainability from greener energy, to travelling less and to greater diversity and equality. We have been living in dislocated times for too long. Further dislocation is not what we need.
Now is the time for us to talk, to discuss, to rebuild teams, to travel and spend time with people in other markets. The fundamentals have not changed; it is the detail of the ways that it works that needs to be renegotiated. It will be time to start again and do it better this time. And that, as we cycle in to our sanitised office environment, is what we need to think about.
Robert Bruce is an accountancy commentator and journalist.
"Now is the time for us to talk, to discuss, to rebuild teams, to travel and spend time with people in other markets"