Rory Sutherland

Working from home could have been the reset we needed

Working from home could have been the reset we needed
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‘It is vital that we see a return to face-to-face meetings to foster the dynamic collaboration that creates breakthrough ideas.’ All true, I’m sure. But what you’re describing here isn’t an office: it’s a pub.

The same goes for ‘team-bonding’. Placing a lot of people in an open-plan office doesn’t really form a close-knit team – which may explain why very little military training takes place behind desks.

No, if you want to form a highly collaborative team, just book your subordinates on a Eurostar junket to Paris, then forget to confirm their return tickets. Trust me, not only will they be newly united in a shared disdain for your organisational skills, but the four hours they’re forced to spend together in Five Guys at the Gare du Nord will forge bonds otherwise found only in the SAS or Navy Seals.

I am not an unthinking fan of continual remote working. But the call to return to the office as if the pandemic never happened risks missing a huge opportunity to find what are effectively costless gains. We cannot simply turn the clock back to 2019, whatever Boris says. His office obsession is, frankly, a bit of a cheek coming from a man whose daily commute consists of a flight of stairs.

My friend the Australian economist Nicholas Gruen recently wrote an online paper entitled ‘How Economics Found Science… and Lost its Subject Matter’. He argues that economics has become so fixated on modelling trade-offs, it’s started assuming there must be a trade-off in everything it studies. This has blinded us to ways in which a more inventive approach might resolve a contradiction entirely.

‘In the 1970s,’ he writes, ‘[car] manufacturers presumed there was a necessary trade-off between cost and quality…But Toyota developed a profoundly different approach in which meticulous attention to getting it “right first time”…dramatically improved quality and lowered cost…By the mid-1980s, the two car models with the highest build quality were luxury Mercedes Sports (assembled with more inspectors per car than any other) and the Toyota Corolla (assembled without any inspectors at all)!’

The assumption that there must be an unambiguous trade-off between employee productivity and employee autonomy may be another such false dichotomy. It is reasonably assumed that consumers spend money on themselves more efficiently than third parties do since, as Adam Smith said: ‘Every man feels his own pleasures and his own pains more sensibly than those of other people.’ Is it therefore impossible that motivated workers might have a better feel than managers for the conditions under which they do their best work?

Besides, office employees can now compare the working conditions of their contemporaries in a way they could never compare salaries.

If working hours and locations are non-negotiable, and salaries are secret, capital holds all the cards when negotiating with labour. The lone outlier is executive pay, which spiralled upwards when board salaries were made public, since by knowing the pay of their opposite numbers, CEOs bizarrely enjoyed bargaining power through comparisons that ordinary workers lacked.

Now that flexible work has also become publicly known, it has suddenly become a bargaining chip for employees. Comparison with the flexibility enjoyed by contemporaries working in tech recently led to mass employee activism at Goldman Sachs.

You can’t turn back the clock. (As the old song puts it: ‘How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?’) What you can do is find new, inventive forms of remuneration and recognition. If you have motivated staff whom you trust, this is not a trade-off, but a mutual win.