A board meeting

As lockdown lifts, office working will change. But it must not die.

I challenge anyone to not feel a sense of joy at the sights and sounds of this week. After months of stony silence, the ring of shop tills, the chink of glasses in pub gardens and the snip of a thousand hairdressers’ scissors are music to the ears. With queues forming outside the most popular high street shops, optimists are forecasting a retail renaissance and a splurge in spending at bricks and mortar stores.

But lockdown habits are unlikely to change overnight. In February, the most recent month for which figures are available, online accounted for 36.1% of all retail sales – their highest ever level. That may prove a high-water mark, but after a year in which millions got used to the ease and convenience of online shopping, high street stores have a mountain to climb.

A similar debate is underway about the future of traditional workplaces. Tech giants like Twitter, which has over 5000 staff – and had 35 offices – worldwide, were among the first to declare that their people could work from home indefinitely.


High street follows suit

Now even high street names are following suit. In recent days both HSBC and Lloyds Banking Group have announced plans to shrink their property footprint and leave staff to work remotely.

While the freedom to work from home can be liberating, not least from the cost and hassle of hours spent commuting, it overwhelmingly benefits older and more experienced workers. Permanent working from home would be little short of disastrous for new and younger employees. For them, working alongside more experienced colleagues is vital.

No amount of video tutorials can replace the benefits of observing their senior peers at work, and absorbing by osmosis all the intricacies of how to do the job well. The term ‘lost generation’ may be overused. But it will be all too accurate if we force the cohort of youngsters lucky and driven enough to fight their way to a job in the current anaemic labour market to learn the ropes of their chosen career entirely from their bedroom.

Less than a year ago, the Prime Minister made a tubthumping speech at Dudley College promising every young person the guarantee of an apprenticeship or an in-work placement. Sadly an ‘in-work placement’ is all but meaningless if it doesn’t take place in work.


What would Lord Sugar think?

What must Lord Sugar – our greatest champion of the apprenticeship – make of it all? Our future stars stuck at home in their pyjamas, grabbing a few minutes here and there on a video call with those supposed to be mentoring them?

Over time such arrangements will only succeed in stifling creativity to the point where we end up degrading the aggregate value of our human capital. I myself learned more about business by being around businesspeople than I could ever glean by gawping at a stranger on a screen.

Remote working has been a revelation over the past year. Like many, my initial misgivings faded as my team pulled together and we made the best of it. We found new ways of working, some of which will live on long past lockdown


Personal connections

But the fact is humans are social animals and teams of us work better when we’re together physically. Last week BlackRock chief executive Larry Fink, in a letter to his staff, put it like this:

“I miss the personal connections and unexpected ideas that come with meeting face-to-face and sharing a meal together. It’s often through a less structured conversation than one can have on a video call that we learn most about each other and experience intangibles, like culture, that are hard to see through a screen.”

Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon also wants all his players back on the field, calling the enforced, mass move to homeworking an “aberration” that must be rejected. This isn’t about corporate titans wanting their staff in the office so they can drive them ever harder.

Far, far more is at stake than that. Everyone from the hot dog vendor in Piccadilly Circus, to the chap who hands you The Evening Standard on the train platform, would be put at risk by the abandonment of city centre workplaces. Amid all the hoopla over Britain’s post-Covid bounceback – with equity markets roaring and spending climbing – let’s not forget our duty of care to the next generation.

Company bosses who order all their staff to work from home permanently, and think they’re doing them a favour, are misguided at best. At worst they’re guilty of selfishly assuming everyone feels – or needs – the same.

Office working will surely change. But it must not die. It’s time for bosses to put an arm around their younger staff, in person and socially distanced of course, not doom them to their bedrooms.

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