Enjoy Personal Finance content? Then you will love Sovereign Quest!
{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Breakfast meetings

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.


References

  • 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

Featured by
--- Tell your friends ---

Next Post

Previous Post

20 Comments

  1. Jim 8 August 2021

    Yep, same story at my MegaCorp here in the US. Lots of anecdotes from executives on how there are so many people eager to return to the office, yet when you drive by campus all of the parking lots are empty. They’re not even pretending to care about their credibility anymore. You bring up a good reason why that’s the case.

    There’s another blogger I follow that has put out a few good pieces on the nonsense of the return-to-office movement, including how the news media tends to frame it as a worker-centric problem and not a employer problem. You should check it out here.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 8 August 2021 — Post author

      Thanks for sharing the link, Jim. The author has some interesting takes. His criticism of the press coverage over remote work is valid, though some of this proposed solutions are based on the premise that senior leadership genuinely want to find a new/different way of working to the familiar one that they learned to thrive in while climbing the ranks.

  2. MonkeysOnARock 8 August 2021

    You seem to be very good at picking out the details of overheard conversations – possibly a useful skill in a corporate environment!

    As for the topic of the post, my suspicion is that a lot of decisions about remote working will effectively be the result of herd-following behaviour (and that this isn’t entirely irrational). In each industry there are likely to be a few big firms whose post-Covid remote working policy becomes public and that effectively sets the benchmark for everyone else – in mine the developing standard seems to be working remotely up to 50% of the time. If the industry is one where the competition for good employees is relatively fierce, then competitors feel the need to roughly match this or risk losing some of their good/profit-generating employees, assuming it’s a benefit which moves the dial for employees (which I suspect it might). In other words, we now do this because everyone else in our world is doing it…

    The dynamic might be different if there’s a surplus of qualified people looking for jobs or companies are looking to downsize anyway, and there’s always the possibility of back-sliding in the future or a faster career track for people who show up in person, but my best guess is that we’ll see industry-specific norms develop in the same way as for pension contributions, annual leave, benefits in kind etc.

    P.S. I am also not a fan of breakfast meetings, for exactly the reasons you describe.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 8 August 2021 — Post author

      Thanks MonkeysOnARock, I suspect you’re right on different norms and expectations evolving between industries.

      You raise an excellent point on the competition for suitably skilled/experienced staff. Geographically constrained supply and demand currently causes the high wages for techies in Silicon Valley or bankers in New York/London.

      However, any role that can be adequately performed remotely instantly becomes a globally competitive job. That creates opportunity for folks in Manilla or Madrid, but should sound warning bells for those living in Menlo Park or Mayfair (particularly with commodity non-jurisdiction specific skills like programming or trading). It is the natural next evolution in the existing long running outsourcing/offshoring trend. Delivering on the long promised potential of all this collaboration technology people have been praising without fully utilising for much of the past decade.

      So for now it is great for those folks fleeing San Jose for Utah, or Canary Wharf for Cardiff. However, I think the genie Facebook has let out of the bottle by tethering remuneration to location will ultimately become a race to the bottom with work being concentrated in the lowest cost locations where suitably skilled workers are available. A boon for smart ambitious folks from the developing world, but a looming disaster for those sitting on top of a mountain of student debt and residing in high cost of living locale.

      I think the names of the firms that thrive will be largely remain same as the big names we know today, just as was the case with outsourcing and offshoring. The main difference will be that remote workers no longer reside within a commutable distance of whatever passes for the corporate office. Which doesn’t bode well for commuter towns or people who live near office parks on the fringes of large cities.

      • MonkeysOnARock 8 August 2021

        I agree that this could be the start of a big shift in terms of how organisations structure their workforces, and that any role without a sufficiently big moat around it would seem like a prime candidate for this. The optimists say “I can do this work from anywhere!” and the accountants respond “Someone cheaper could do this work from anywhere…”

        Doing jurisdiction-specific work is definitely helpful in the sense that your pool of potential competitors is smaller, but you do still run the risk that a) the job you do in London could be done more cheaply in Glasgow or Belfast, or b) demand for your service in your particular jurisdiction dries up over time for external reasons (Brexit, anyone?) and you have nowhere to jump to. “You pays your money and you takes your choice” I suppose!

        • {in·deed·a·bly} 8 August 2021 — Post author

          The textbook example of that jurisdictional specific skills not providing much of a moat is preparation of personal tax returns in the US. A couple of decades ago, dentists and plumbers would carry their box of receipts down to the local strip mall and visit the big name tax return preparation office. An accounting student or bookkeeper would complete the return for them in the back room of that local office.

          Then one day the firm discovered Fedex, and the receipts etc started getting boxed up and shipped to India where an equally well qualified crew of accounting students and bookkeepers performed the same job for 10% of the wages, after being trained up on the US tax code.

          So while the firm still has more than 10,000 offices in strip malls throughout the country, life got infinitely harder for the local bookkeepers and accounting students seeking practical experience.

  3. Impersonal Finances 9 August 2021

    It’s almost hard to believe the old way–I think the cat is out of the bag at this point.

    Also, that might be the most interesting group of people ever assembled at a breakfast joint. Awesome storytelling!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 9 August 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Impersonal Finances. We’ll see how things play out I guess. The old guard rarely goes off into the night with grace and dignity, normally there is a lot of kicking and screaming along the way!

      It is a bit like the questioning of the value of tertiary education, or the debate over forgiveness of student debts. Many of the arguments boil down to “they have to, because I had to“. Which says a lot about human nature, and the irrationality of many traditions.

      On the interesting crowd front, I think it was more a case of England’s “freedom day” leading to groups meeting up for the first time in person to share 12-18 months worth of war stories and gossip. The sort of things that don’t come up during scheduled Zoom calls. That’s how the conversation played out at our table anyway. If we went back the following week, the discussions would likely have been all about the boring routine stuff: sporting scores, public transport delays, and bad first dates!

      • David Andrews 9 August 2021

        The overlord of my American employer has advised we can work from home as long as we like. He has been working from the Hawaiian island he owns. I think he also has a large interest in zoom. I also read that an MP suggested that civil servants should return to the office or receive a pay cut. He considers they have all received a generous pay rise as they ate no longer spending money on commuting.

        I’m not really bothered either way as my commute involves a 20 minute bike ride but my lockdown tummy suggests resuming the commute would be beneficial.

        My colleague who has now bought a house in a non commutable location has a rather different opinion.

        • {in·deed·a·bly} 9 August 2021 — Post author

          Thanks David. I think those pandemic podleys must have been contagious, there are more than a few of them about town now people are emerging from social isolation!

  4. Fire And Wide 9 August 2021

    Hey Indeedably.

    Follow the money, every time. my take – it’s going to be a mixed bag. From conversations with my ‘still working’ friends, it seems most firms are going after a combo of some time in/some time at home flexi working style. Which is kinda funny given that’s what I did for many years to great financial benefit!

    Are they doing it out of the goodness of their hearts or for worker’s benefit? Of course not……it’s simply a numbers game of being able to downsize office space. No more permanent desk for you – it’s now elbows out to grab a hot desk on your mandatory days in! ( C-suite aside doubtlessly….. )

    I hope I’m wrong….flex working was amazing for me.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 9 August 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Michelle. I haven’t had an allocated desk anywhere I’ve worked since 2013, hot desking has been the default option for a decade or so now.

      The disconnect on the flex working couple of days a week is the powers that be want everyone in on the same days. That conflicts with the downsizing real estate goal, as the maximum capacity issue remains.

  5. SparkleBee 11 August 2021

    Similar to fire and wide, my working friends are saying that it’s a flexi approach but I can see that the number of in person meetings will increase for them until everyone is back in the office As per the carrot and stick action voiced by that CEO. They like to see ‘bums on seats in the office’.

    I would like a flexi job (I used to have one) but they just don’t seem to really exist as the ones I have seen say they want full time office attendance once you scrape the surface. Smoke and mirrors… the old norms will be back before we know it.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 11 August 2021 — Post author

      Thanks SparkleBee. I agree, the flexi thing will likely be the first step towards a graduated return to work being done at work, rather than from home.

      It has little do with productivity or outcomes, much more about control, insecurity, needing an audience or a ready made social life, and vested interests.

  6. Q-FI 12 August 2021

    Like many have commented, there was some hot action taking place in that breakfast joint! Living relatively close to Hollywood, I enjoyed that waitress/actress tidbit… haha.

    Your tale of the grey men musings, is pretty accurate to what I’ve experienced so far. Most higher ups want to return to the office ASAP, and most knowledge workers want WFH to stay.

    My global company has taken the approach of a wait and see, don’t say anything either way, and continually tell the workers they are analyzing and studying the optimal work environment for the future… haha. So instead of simply doing a survey or asking employees what they would like, I’m fairly certain as soon as the numbers allow, the office will be back. I’d be relatively surprised however, not shocked, if they didn’t at least start with some type of hybrid. In my small department of 6, we all want WFH except for our boss. Did he ever ask us what we want? Of course not.

    So I think, once the management preference to be office bound is negated, much of WFH will come down to one’s supervisor’s preferences. For me, that currently doesn’t bode so well, but hopefully in the future it will.

    I’ve also written about my own little bitchfest with travel picking back up lately. During COVID I’ve actually improved my commute, moving 15 min away rather than 1-1.5 hour commute to the office. However, what I’ve found is, in terms of time, this is a huge improvement. However, whether you have 15 min, or an hour, in traffic, you’re still in traffic and it provides ample opportunity to ruin your day dealing with shitty drivers. Hahaha. So knocking down a commute time, might not be as important as eliminating that commute altogether.

    However, I’d rather dwell on this as a tiny victory, rather than the glass half empty.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 12 August 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Q-FI. Your newer, shorter commute sounds like winning to me. That is the time equivalent of 15 working weeks per year that you have got back to do other more fun or rewarding activities with!

      It has been interesting watching firms try to combat the WFH desire with the threat of pay cuts. Apparently less time spent commuting means the same job is somehow worth less to the firm. It appears there are a lot of vested interests tied up in those commercial properties!

  7. moneysavegeek 13 August 2021

    This is basically the conversation that is happening at work at the moment. From a management perspective the message is that we are supportive of hybrid working. But based on individual conversations people are getting told that if you go down the hybrid route its going to be career limiting.

    The view of management is that if you want to progress in the company you need to have “face” time.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 13 August 2021 — Post author

      Thanks MoneySaveGeek.

      Perhaps it is as simple as senior management clinging to what they know? Sucking up in person was what got them where they are today. Therefore, they expect to be on the receiving end of that same ego stroking and brown-nosing treatment, as a perk of having managed to climb near the top of the greasy pole. Short sighted if true, but would certainly explain a lot of the behaviours on show!

  8. weenie 18 August 2021

    Great post, remind me not to ever sit near you in a coffee shop, with your evidently superior eavesdropping skillz! 🙂

    Flexi-working is the way now (although I can WFH permanently if I choose to) as the office space we are leasing is now smaller than pre-COVID so not everyone can come in at the same time. The ‘bums on seats’ has been mostly reserved for the sales people who have suffered most from WFH (young chaps who need to see and hear other people closing deals to motivate them).

    Our UK HQ is in London but apparently they’re not renewing the office lease or looking elsewhere (for now) so all directors down there will be WFH, perhaps occasionally travelling up to Manchester to show their faces and remind the plebs who they are.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 18 August 2021 — Post author

      Thanks weenie.

      It is fascinating how different sites are approaching the return to “normal” (however that is defined). I’ve heard from a couple of people this week who have received a “back to school” summons to return to the office full time from the start of September. No requirement for masks or tests, just fully occupied hot-desks.

      The logic seems to be like ripping off a band-aid. A short sharp discomfort, that is swiftly forgotten.

What say you?

© 2021 { in·deed·a·bly }

Privacy policy

Subscribe