Backlash Against WFH Is Based On Preference Not Evidence


The pied piper leads away the rats as he plays his pipe.

Follow my leader could be ruinous in the WFH revolution

Volkanakmese for Shutterstock

To a deserted Canary Wharf, London. Barclays is – or was – headquartered here. Its chief executive Jes Staley has signaled he wants people back in the office. “It is important to get people back together in physical concentrations,” he said. “We want our people back together, to make sure we ensure the evolution of our culture and our controls, and I think that will happen over time.”

The corona outbreak has led Barclays to station 60,000 of its staff at their “kitchen tables”, according to Staley. His missive suggests their sharing space with the paraphernalia of domesticity will be a temporary measure. Meantime, the London radio presenter Nick Ferrari chose more inflammatory words to attack the WFH revolution: “You know why we have offices? So you can actually do some damn work … Zoom calls – I’ve had enough of them. Get back to work,” he said. Ferrari added a dose of sexism for bad measure: “What do you think is going to get this country going again?” he asked. “Wandering around getting your nails done and having a cup of coffee with your girlfriends?”

While the measured Staley and the deliberately obtuse Ferrari presented their arguments in rather different ways, their hypotheses would seem to share an obvious commonality: they were based on their own preference rather than that of the evidence.

Barclays, like much of the financial sector in the City of London launched homeworking through necessity and found – lo and behold! – it works. I learned of one City firm that was so delighted with its staff’s productivity while vying with the toaster for space that it offered a permanent increase in their annual leave allowance as a reward. Meanwhile those forward-thinking organizations that offered homeworking long before the virus existed shrugged their shoulders at the fuss.

The evidence for flexible working is long held. The reasons in its favor are so widely known that to reprise them verges on boring: shorter commute, better work-life balance, greater energy levels, more privacy, improved productivity. Indeed, the strongest argument against, is that people work too much and stretch the working day even while flexing it.  

Yet despite the wealth of evidence, homeworking’s opponents seem to focus chiefly on what it is like for themselves: there is a lack of empathy about what it is like for others. We are all different. Introverts; those who are adept at technology; those who live a long way from the office; those who just work better in a quieter environment are better off, much of the time, at home.

All too often in business, fundamental decisions are driven by the worldview of someone powerful in the decision-making process rather than the evidence. Some leaders dislike homeworking because it doesn’t suit their preferred style – their opposition has little to do with its effects on employees or the wider organization.

Some leaders hate writing ­– they prefer to stand in front of a classroom armed with a flip chart and marker pen. Other bosses are extroverts – they simply feel better in front of an audience. Some chief executives just relish seeing their people around them, as a visible reminder of the strength of their organization.

Not all of these predilections are Machiavellian – some are simply born of the universal truth that people like different things. As the late great boxer Muhammad Ali once had it: “It’s different strokes for different folks.”

We are heading to a troublesome place if we allow the preferences of the leader to force working styles on everybody else, it rather takes the flexible out of flexibility. Let organizations find a way to accommodate everyone, as near as is possible, to their best environment. Organizations will suffer if everyone is expected to comply with the personal preferences of the boss, regardless of whether it helps them perform at their best.

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