The Battle Between the Fridge and the Watercooler
The Great WFH debate hots up!
Sunday 15 May 2022
This is an article which was commissioned by The Observer Newspaper and runs here
One of the bestselling business books of all time is called Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson and has sold thirty million copies worldwide since 1998. It is a book about change and features two sets of creatures, mouse and human, who are either trying to replicate old patterns and find long-lost cheese, or be adventurous and discover new supplies of it.
It is rather a fitting parable for the emerging battle lines around post-pandemic working practices, specifically how much knowledge workers use the office, and what productivity gains look like with new hybrid working patterns. Another writer called Johnson is also using cheese to make his point: The Prime Minister said on Friday that “my experience of working from home is you spend an awful lot of time walking very slowly to the fridge, hacking off a small piece of cheese, then walking very slowly back to your laptop”.
The message, that all you do is nibble unproductively and waste time when you work from home, has recently been echoed in stereo by a series of poster-men (and it is men of a certain generation) for RTO or ‘Return to Office’ from business and Government around the world, including David Solomon of Goldman Sachs who famously called working from home an ’aberration’; Lord Sugar who railed against the ‘Lazy Gits’ at PWC who are working milder ‘Summer Hours’ out of the office; and of course Jacob Rees-Mogg, who recently took to touring empty Whitehall offices and leaving passive-aggressive ‘sorry to miss you’ notes on desks.
From a management and leadership perspective all I can say is that this strategy is not much better than calling workers ‘cheese eating surrender monkeys’, (a phrase memorably used in The Simpsonsthe same year that Who Moved My Cheese? was published to describe the French), and it is interesting to note that some politicians and business leaders are deliberately deciding that to attacking the workforce is their best line of defence against the seismic changes they are facing: the tightest labour market in decades, rising inflation, and a global rejection of a return to office life with all the economic and cultural disruption that implies.
The timing of the Prime Minister’s remarks coincided with the media briefing by Lord Rees-Mogg that the Civil Service can be cut by as much a one fifth. He has deliberately conflated the question of cuts to the service with a criticism of the emerging 3-2 hybrid model of three days a week in the office and two remotely which is fast becoming the norm in post pandemic cities around the world.
To do so is not just bad politics but flies in the face of evidence emerging that new working patterns which give workers agency, flexibility and a mix of in-person, combining in-office social time with self-managed less monitored work is productive. Professor Nicholas Bloom of Stanford, a British academic, showed in a study of 16,000 workers that productivity can rise by as much as 13% on this basis. Data from Ipsos consistently shows that across all demographics flexibility to work differently is desirable, with 65% saying they are more productive when the work flexibly.
So why the political and management resistance? Let’s go back to cheese. Old habits die hard and changing command-and-control models is an undeniable challenge. Implementing hybrid is hard and will involve experimentation and iteration. The two indecisive change-resistant human characters in Who Moved My Cheese? Are called ‘”Hem and Haw”. It takes them considerably longer to realise that they have to go through the maze they are in to find new sources of cheese than it does their more entrepreneurial mouse counterparts “Sniff and Scurry”. Hem and Haw today are exactly those leaders who would prefer to see pointless presenteeism rather than be curious about finding out how their workforces like to work and can be best productive. The post-pandemic office is entirely different to what it was before. Teleconferencing and technology have collided with cultural shifts so that people want who they are in the wider lives to become integrated with the way they work, and specifically when and where they work.
When it comes to the politics and policy of work and the post-pandemic workplace, 2022 will be remembered as the battle between the fridge and the watercooler. But to borrow from another phrase, those making the policies and tasked with making them work need to keep it real. Change is in the air and someone just moved the cheese.
Now…sit back with a glass of wine and some cheese and biscuits as Series 3 is here!
The first episode is out and features a veritable galaxy of interesting executives from Anoushka Healy, global head of strategy at News Corporation to Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University - the academic with his finger most on the pulse of the latest data about WFH and hybrid.
And, may I ask, have you read The Nowhere Office book yet?
It is here and was featured this week on BBC News too.
Anyway, that is it from me for today but do follow me @juliahobsbawm on Twitter or @thenowhereoffi1 on Twitter or email me firstname.lastname@example.org with any thoughts or data.
i leave you with a photo of our cat Levi who works from home a lot. Especially Amazon boxes.