The idea of office work being the ‘white-collar’ equivalent of clock-watching factory work is over. The pandemic and the digital revolution have shattered the relationship between work and location. After a post-lockdown surge, data is showing the ‘return to work’ has now reached a plateau.
Tube travel into central London has steadied between 60 and 67% of pre-covid levels, with a significant rise only on Thursdays, favoured by the ‘three-day hybrids’. Law and finance firms are reporting offices at between 30 and 60% of capacity. Retail footfall has stabilised at 80% of pre-covid numbers. The property consultants, Remit, estimated in February that clerical occupancy was as low as 25%, far below pre-pandemic levels. Something drastic has happened and is unlikely to be reversed.
So office work has changed for ever, but Jacob Rees-Mogg, the ‘minister for Brexit opportunities’ (an oxymoron if ever there was one) is leaving letters to civil servants as if they’re his butlers.
Popping into civil service offices, Rees-Mogg left typed notes, saying; “Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon. With every good wish, Rt Hon, Jacob Rees-Mogg M.P. Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency”. In an associated newspaper article, he also suggested that they might like to stick to ‘the shires’ and forgo their London weighting allowance. Imagine being lectured on how to work by a man who typically lies down in his place of business.
Rees-Mogg’s Brexit has been largely responsible for 91,000 extra officials being appointed since 2015-16, of whom about 25,000 are attributable to Brexit. For two years, Rees-Mogg and his boss have been ordering workers to stay at home, causing many upheavals in their working lives as they have juggled work with other responsibilities, such as home schooling.
Offices can be inflexible and distracting places, prone to time-wasting chat and unnecessary meetings, in addition to the time and cost involved in commuting. But socialising is important to an organisation and its staff and the balance between on-screen and in-person contact is a delicate one, as is the balance between in-house and outsourcing. But we do not know how that balance is to be quantified and regulated.
In a factory, producing actual stuff, productivity is easy to measure. Likewise, supermarkets, hairdressers and tattoo parlours. But what about ‘white collar office workers’?
I have discussed this matter very recently with three CEOs. The first heads up a global advertising agency in London and is very relaxed about his employees striking their own balance between home-work and turning up to the office a couple of times a week, not necessarily for reasons of productivity, but more to provide mentoring and guidance to more junior members of staff. The added benefit of meeting up in person is an increased sense of company cohesion.
The second CEO set up his own company 20 years ago in the pharmaceutical sector and employs 200 people at their headquarters and he has insisted on all workers being in the office whenever permitted, since the beginning of the pandemic. His attitude is very much; “It’s my company, I pay their wages and I want to see them at work every day.”
The third CEO, also set up his own company, but employs only five members of staff. Since the pandemic, he has downsized the office and is very happy with staff coming into the office whenever they want to, trusting them to work as hard and effectively at home as in the office.
So, it seems that a leader’s definition of productivity possibly depends on how large a company is and whether it is their money on the line.