I arrived early for the breakfast meeting.
At first pass, the concept sounds appealing. A chance to converse with colleagues in an informal setting. Share a meal. Trade gossip. Tell war stories. Escape the endless interruptions of the office.
Except when you stop to think about it, breakfast meetings are a trap. Not enough time during the normal working day. Too many concurrent demands clamouring for attention. Treating the symptoms rather than addressing the root cause of the problem.
A breakfast meeting means an earlier than normal start. A longer than usual working day.
While I waited for my colleagues to arrive at the self-described hipster bar, with acoustics like a cathedral, I people-watched and sipped from the enormous bucket the barista had served my coffee in.
It was nice to be out in the world again. Heartening to see a semblance of normalcy starting to reassert itself, as friends and coworkers enjoyed each other’s company in person after 18+ months of relative social isolation.
At the next table, a middle-aged man with a limp told an unlikely tale of having been paid for more than two years without having to do any work. Tuped from a megacorp to an outsourcing provider. Lost in one of their endless corporate restructures, falling off the org chart. Unallocated to a client. Unassigned to an office. Told by HR to “work” from home while he waited for his next assignment. Two years later, he claimed to be still receiving a full salary. Still bombarded with bureaucratic administrivia demands to complete diversity training. Perform occupational health and safety self-assessments. Submit professional development plans. Use up his accrued paid annual leave.
Nearby, a perky waitress carried an awe-inspiring number of dirty dishes on one arm as she explained to an elderly married couple that she was really an actress. The wife politely enquired whether they might have seen her on television or in a film? To which the waitress replied with a cheeky wink that she had once appeared topless in a movie with a former Hollywood heartthrob, who was currently in the news for all the wrong reasons. The wife goldfished. Her husband grinned.
Snippets of conversation carried from tables further away.
A well-dressed young woman tearfully confessed to a concerned colleague that she had lost her house deposit. After hearing endless stories about the overnight riches being made by cryptocurrency investors, in early May she decided to join them by going all-in. Why settle for a 25-year mortgage, when within a few short months she could potentially make enough for a fully paid-off home? The crypto price promptly got cut in half, at which point she panic sold to cut her losses.
A group of men wearing high-vis construction worker gear argued about summer vacations. One complained his holiday plans had been derailed after his daughter was sent home from primary school with COVID during the last week of term. His colleague smugly boasted that his family had evaded “red list” quarantine restrictions by travelling back to the UK via a “green list” country.
A dejected Airbnb investor lamented that after a year of mostly being vacant, their coastal property had been destroyed by a hard-partying amateur rugby team, just before the summer high season.
Excited squeals exploded from a corner table, where a middle-aged woman recounted an eventful few months of becoming pregnant and hurried house hunting. Eventually, she had an offer accepted, bidding £54,000 over the asking price for a small house that needed lots of work. Possibly marking the frothy peak of an overheated housing market boom.
My attention was seized by an aggressive conversation immediately behind me. Had the City always been this crowded and so very loud?
At a table by the window, four self-important C-suite members sat earnestly discussing how to get their workers back into the office. All male. All white. All but one balding. Wearing tailored suits and sensible ties. The stereotypical “grey men” who run the world.
There was no pretence about being physically in the same place enhancing communication, collaboration, reducing friction, or leading to those serendipity moments around a whiteboard.
No cherry-picked statistics that purport to demonstrate office-bound commuters are happier or more productive.
Their issue was that remote workers can only be measured on outcomes delivered.
Which meant that those who can effect change or make things happen were visible and succeeding. Overshadowing the sycophantic toadies and corporate “yes men”, who had either faded into the background or been all too transparent in their attempts to claim credit for the achievements of others.
While that may sound like a meritocracy, the “wrong” sort of people were now gaining recognition and advancement. Disrupting those all-important cabals, cliques, and carefully cultivated networks that play such a big part in climbing the career ladder. Providing an opportunity for rivals to rise, potentially threatening the incumbent’s own position at the top of the ladder.
An overweight exec with a florid complexion and gin blossom nose angrily declared they should just mandate the return. Existing employment contracts clearly stated workplace and core working hours, so anyone refusing would be in breach of contract. Make an example out of a couple of high profile hold-outs, whom they wanted to get rid of anyway, and the rest would soon fall into line.
A stick-thin bespectacled gentleman declared that the way to a worker’s heart was through their stomach. Offer free lunches to those who return to the office. Have those lunches delivered, removing the excuse to take a lunch break outside. Most workers would eat at their desks, resulting in the move paying for itself by effectively reclaiming the lunch hour as productive working time.
Once the majority of the workers had fallen back into the habit of purchasing season tickets and commuting, the free lunches could be withdrawn. Peer pressure would ensure few workers would return to remote working. To preserve the productivity dividend, the firm would ensure lunches continued to be delivered, with employees now being charged for them. If done right, a new profit centre could be created by marking up the food and drink prices that employees were charged.
A dour man with caterpillar eyebrows stated that there was an easier way. Simply downgrade the firn’s remote working capabilities to introduce unreliable connectivity for those working from home. Remote workers would feel excluded when they found themselves unable to communicate effectively with their colleagues who were physically present in the office. Opinions ignored. Information flows choked off. Contributions stifled. Then spread rumours of a pilot productivity measurement project, and let the subsequent fear of job losses drive the remote employees back to the office.
Based on the way the others deferred to him, the fourth man appeared to be in charge. Sporting the perfect teeth and carefully coiffed hairstyle of a television news anchor, he sat back and listened to the ideas being suggested by his minions.
He shook his head at what he was hearing. Pointed to the way Facebook had been castigated in the press for introducing geographic discrimination into their remote worker remuneration decisions. Observing the missteps that Goldman and Google had made when attempting to mandate a return to the office. He was insistent that their approach not result in his featuring in a takedown piece on the front page of the Financial Times.
His preferred approach involved a combination of carrot and stick.
Thank the employees for their hard work over a difficult 18 months. Acknowledge that few had been able to take vacations amidst travel restrictions, quarantine, and self-isolation requirements.
Reward those who returned to the office with a one-off award of additional days of paid annual leave.
But limit the financial impact by imposing a “use it or lose it” policy that disallowed carrying any unused leave over into the new calendar year. That policy would persist, providing a recurring win for the firm by eliminating the traditional three month grace period to use up carried over leave.
Follow up with an in-person Wednesday meetings/workshops day at the office, starting with a catered hot breakfast. Once most employees had returned to the office a couple of times, withdraw the breakfasts and increase the number of days during which in-person meetings would be held until they eventually spanned the entire working week.
Finally, announce that workers who were unwilling to return would be placed under formal performance management. Send a clear message that careers would be truncated and performance bonuses withheld. A precursor leading to redundancy in the majority of cases. A small disruption in the short term, but no worker was irreplaceable. It might even provide an opportunity to reset the base salary to a lower level for many roles, delivering a recurring cost saving.
At that point, my colleagues arrived, and we commenced our own breakfast meeting over buckets of coffee and overpriced eggs. Our conversation was little different to those I had overheard. Vacation plans and COVID disruptions. Family milestones. Office gossip. Sporting pursuits.
The conversation turned to housing and the future of remote working.
One colleague had moved out to coastal Kent during lockdown. A 70 mile, 90 minute train journey, each way. With fares so high it was cheaper to stay in a City hotel overnight than to return home.
Another had shifted to the outskirts of South London. A fixer-upper house backing onto woodland, in a public transport blackspot. Not owning a car, they faced an almost two-hour journey each way to get to the office, involving multiple buses and a train.
The third had moved home to assist his elderly parent on their farm in rural Wales. The London commute was simply not viable, requiring an overnight hotel stay to be at the office for the start of the working day. A return to the office would involve becoming a weekly commuter, living in a depressing bed ‘n breakfast or paying a small fortune to stay in an Airbnb on school nights.
All strongly felt they were happier and more productive working remotely.
None wanted to return to the old ways of the sleep/commute/work/commute/sleep daily grind.
Collectively they hoped the world had learned some lessons from the pandemic experiment, and be wiser for the experience.
The well-coifed CEO at the table behind us laughed out loud at that point, as he eavesdropped on our conversation just I had earlier listened to his. Human self-interest is one of the most powerful and unchanging forces of the universe. The winning course of action would be the one that delivered the largest financial benefit to the decision-makers personally.
To understand how the future will unfold, simply follow the money.
- Nix, N. (2021), ‘Facebook Says It Will Expand Remote Work to All Employees’, Bloomberg
- Race, M. (2021), ‘Goldman Sachs delays return to office for workers’, BBC News
- Turner, J. (2021), ‘Google Criticized for Remote Working Policy’, tech.co