30 September 2021
The blinding of commerce.
By Robert Kilconner
Hip, trendy, gathering pace and of the moment, one trend exacerbated by the pandemic is unlikely to go away in the near future. Even before Covid struck, the Government was promising reforms to encourage working from home. It now seems that employees will be able to seek homeworking arrangements from their first day in the job (historically they have only been able to do so after working for six months) and that the employer will have an obligation to consider the application reasonably.
It isn’t hard to find good reasons for this reform or indeed for the rise of homeworking generally. Apart from its role in containing infectious diseases, homeworking enables many who find travelling to the office difficult, to be economically active. Women with young children, for example, can combine childcare with on-screen work. The disabled can take on important roles provided that they can handle a computer. Older and more experienced staff can be retained more easily and the reduction in the number of employees travelling to work is good for the environment and reduces the amount which the employer needs to spend on office space. A good arrangement from everyone’s point of view, you might think.
Yet just as some probably carped at the invention of the wheel, there are those who see a leaden lining to this apparently silver cloud. Some people like going to the office. Others find sitting at home makes them subject to distractions. Distinguished neuroscientists have identified the commute, with its change of scenery and interaction with crowds, as being good for mental health. And there are implications for the health of the organisation too. Team spirit is often built round coffee machines. Many of the best ideas start with a chat in the office of a colleague. Juniors learn by watching their managers at work. Do all those who pretend to be working at home put in a solid 35 hours a week or are some of them, dare one suggest it, just lazing around? Then there are political implications. Some in the Labour Party believe that homeworking should be a right of all white-collar workers. It is hard to think of a more socially divisive rule than that. “My son works at home. A pity yours has to commute” could encapsulate more social snobbery than we have seen since they split the London telephone numbers between 0207 and 0208.
All these points will be aired up and down the country as employers and employees try to find the right balance coming out of Covid. They are all, however, essentially peripheral because the first question which has to be asked is how working at home affects the effectiveness with which the workforce of a firm goes about its day-to-day tasks.
In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell looks at the value of instinctive reactions. The idea is that when faced with a new situation or person an initial impression is formed with the benefit of experiences and instincts of which you may not be fully conscious. As more deliberate consideration follows, that snapshot is pushed aside and the benefit of the perceptions which contributed to it are lost. Clausewitz refers to the instinctive reaction as the “Coup D’Oeil” or “Commander’s Intuition” but you also see it when a professional athlete hits a ball. Instinct, experience, perception, all rolled into a single flash which would be lost on detailed consideration of fixed rules. Careful analysis, therefore, can often weaken decision-making rather than strengthening it.
People who do a lot of interviewing will tell you that often they have a good impression of the candidate by the time they have shaken hands and sat down. That is not because they are superficial or pursuing some racist or class-based agenda. Rather it is because human beings build up experience over their lives and very small things, barely noticed or even subconscious, become useful indicators contributing to a Coup D’Oeil. It may be of course that by the end of the interview the employer will have changed his or her mind but nonetheless that initial impression is a very valuable one.
Now assume that the same interview is carried out remotely. One could have the same series of questions to ask and also get an impression from the image and manner of the candidate. Nevertheless many of those instinctive antennae so useful in a physical interview will not be activated.
What applies to interviewing applies elsewhere. Suppose there is a negotiation and you are trying to assess the reaction of the other party to a proposal. Suppose you are going into a joint venture and trying to form a view as to whether your potential partner can be trusted. Suppose you are managing your staff and trying to assess who is really contributing to solutions and who is not. Everywhere a lack of physical meetings impedes your vision because when you meet someone you impart information which is not imparted when you exchange emails or participate in a zoom call.
Occasionally, of course, that is a good thing. Suppose you are selling your company and the purchaser has put in a team to do due diligence. Would they be more likely to uncover weaknesses if they came in to your offices and chatted to your staff or if they merely participated in a series of zoom calls?
We hear lots about whether working from home can adversely affect morale or motivation, lots about whether it lets down the young or impedes the flow of ideas. The truth is, however, that it often does something much worse than that. It damages an organisation’s sight and that is why, particularly in the City where the picking up of information is everything, those firms who get their staff back into the office will gradually push aside and eliminate those which do not; so that extensive homeworking will gradually become the prerogative of those working the public sector.