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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Let them eat cheese… working from home is here to stay | Julia Hobsbawm

One of the bestselling business books of all time is called Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson and has sold 30m 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 Johnson is also using cheese to make his point. The prime minister said on Friday: “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.”

This message – that all you do is nibble unproductively and waste time when you work from home – has been echoed 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 called working from home an “aberration”; Lord Sugar, who railed against the “lazy gits” at PWC who are working “summer hours” out of office; and of course Jacob Rees-Mogg, who took to touring empty Whitehall offices and leaving passive-aggressive “Sorry you were out” 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 term memorably coined by The Simpsons – the same year that Who Moved My Cheese? was published – to describe the French), and it is interesting that some politicians and business leaders are deciding that 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.

2022 will be remembered for the battle between the fridge and the watercooler. Photograph: Corbis Premium RF/Alamy

The timing of Boris Johnson’s remarks coincided with the media briefing by Rees-Mogg that the civil service can be cut by as much a a fifth. He has deliberately conflated the question of cuts to the service with criticism of the emerging 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 that new working patterns which give workers agency, flexibility and a mix of in-office social time with self-managed, less monitored work is productive. Professor Nicholas Bloom of Stanford 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 they 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 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 counterparts “Sniff and Scurry”. Today Hem and Haw are those leaders who would prefer to see pointless presenteeism rather than be curious enough to find out how their staff like to work and can be best productive.

The post-pandemic office is entirely different from how it was before. Teleconferencing and technology have collided with cultural shifts, and people want to better integrate their work self with the rest of their life.

When it comes to the politics of work and the post-pandemic workplace, 2022 will be remembered for the battle between the fridge and the watercooler. But to borrow from another phrase, those creating the policies and tasked with making them work need to keep it real. Change is in the air and someone just moved the cheese.

Julia Hobsbawm is the author of The Nowhere Office: Reinventing Work and the Workplace of the Future and the co-presenter of the podcast The Nowhere Office

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