It is a grim reality of 21st century life that bold controversies often die when they appear on the business conference stage. I am one of the culprits, for I have been a very polite and frugal person at such events, which were exacerbated by the enforced distance of virtual conferences.
So it was a bit shocking that day to see an online business discussion board dominated by an unwavering opposition. Frankly, the discussion centered on the lack of consensus around worker autonomy, which I suspect will widen as the trend toward more flexible work accelerates.
It happened at a Financial Times (FT) conference, during a session on whether home-office hybrid work can really work. Three of the four speakers were part of an emerging and compelling consensus that, before the pandemic, much of our work life was inflexible, inhuman and unproductive. Now, fortunately, Covid has paid a share of the reversal of the mindless 9-5 presence in the offices of no return.
Anne Frank, executive director of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Management, has been a staunch supporter of the idea that the pandemic has forced a modernization of work that was already needed and that “enlightened” employers know to give employees more freedom to do so. Adapting work to home life would lead to a more loyal and productive workforce.
Errol Gardner, global vice president of consulting at EY, warned the Uninformed that a recent global survey by EY showed that 54% of employees can quit unless they are given the freedom to decide where and when they work.
The problems began when talks turned to concerns that such an offer might harm a company. Laura Laltrello, US Vice President of Honeywell, said she was able to build good relationships with clients through Zoom because they knew her more personally because they brought her home on the Internet.
At this point, the fourth member of the committee expressed his strong opinion. Neville Kopowitz, chief executive of insurance company Vitality UK, said telling clients that you were working from home was fine for some business-to-business meetings “at a certain level”, but that there should be limits to workers’ freedom in some jobs.
“We receive 20,000 calls a week in our call centers and our customers will not be happy that we have decided that X, YZ can go out between 3:00 and 4:00 pm and that we will not answer our phone during that time,” he said. “We have to see the world through the eyes of our customers. In the end, they are the ones who pay our salaries.”
He was testing a mixed business model where employees were expected to come into the office only two days a week. But he also had a business to run.
He told Frank “Ann,” “The truth is that when you run these great organizations, you have a responsibility to your customers. It’s not as simple as having absolute complete flexibility.”
“I don’t say that!” Frank protested. All the evidence shows, he said, that engaged and loyal employees serve customers better, and that the pandemic has exposed much management thinking “a century past.”
Anne replied, “Having a strict schedule for when employees can serve customers does not make the employer ‘ruthless.’ And so it went on. In the end there were no winners except for the onlookers. They got a glimpse of the big dilemmas that hybrid business began to create.” .
Frank is right in saying that research shows that workers are more productive when they are happy. You don’t need a Dilbert cartoon to know that many traditional work practices have been useless.
However, Koopowitz was expressing the concerns of many employers about the new era of worker independence that Covid heralds. Can the company be sure that nearly two years into the pandemic, customers will continue to put up with an employee who is distracted by a doorbell or isn’t clearly heard from a computer at home?
Can a company adequately train new workers when there are very few old workers in the office? Is effective collaboration really possible in a hybrid environment? Many companies will eventually solve this problem, but as Frank pointed out, more than two-thirds of UK managers have not received training to manage hybrid work. Until they are properly trained, the new world of work will raise many more questions than answers.
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