In Praise of the Office

In March 2020 I returned to the UK after a year and half in China and a little over six in total in East Asia. As well as returning with stories, scars and a new respect for the Singapore legal system, I also swept back to Europe alongside Covid-19. It was quite a way to be upstaged. My intention had been to spend my first 6 months or so picking up freelance work whilst looking for my next ‘3-5 year thing’, but in April of last year, that initial plan of an early summer of relaxed coffees with old connections looked increasingly impossible. In that environment, I jumped on the first ‘safe bet’ that was hiring and was a ‘good-enough’ match for my skills; a fast-growing market research ‘tech disruptor’. Though the role was fully remote, the company was (is) full of brilliant, smart people and at its heart, a central premise that I believed in. But fast forward and my experience of remote work was a year of relentless hours, cramped kitchen table video calls and, eventually, burnout, that has left me reflecting on what is a job really for and what we all lost when we all left the office.

Summer 2020 was a glorious one and as we lived our lives outdoors in sun-dappled parks, commentators were quick to celebrate the end of the office; no more cubicle, commute or gossipy chat. But newspaper columnists are more often than not solitary scribes liable to their own egocentric bias. I would also note that as we ploughed on into the depths of lockdown, the quality of their work began to erode with the sharpest minds resorting to observational commentary on park dog walkers or YouTube workout gurus. Even culture’s silent voyeurs need something to ‘voy’. Meanwhile their analysis of the shifts in work that the pandemic forced upon us all were limited to office-based professionals and focused only – at least at first – on the perceived gains, rather than the very real losses. People were able to perform their tasks just as adequately at home. They would save money and time on the commute, as well as by forgoing the flat white or the deli salad box. At the same time employers were looking at resilient short-term production and the opportunity to shed expensive city-centre property portfolios, along with their accompanying facilities bills. And as our days began to start earlier and our lunch breaks compressed, they were extracting more from us for the same pay.

From the employee’s perspective, this purely economic analysis of the socio-cultural institution of ‘work’ is myopic. Just as we don’t eat at a restaurant because we are simply hungry, or wear the clothes we choose just to stay warm, we don’t work just to make money. Work – and I would include child-rearing in the category here – provides purpose, structure, belonging, friendships; it generates social capital and plays a key role in our mental health. Historically we have seen this most clearly in industrial communities in the 19th and early 20th century, where mines and factories gave rise to football clubs and bands, unions and clubs, hobbies and associations.

Many of the 21st Centuries own White Collar Proletariat – the Powerpoint wranglers and Excel tweakers of the modern knowledge economy see themselves as somehow above this; that all they need is a oat latte and a good broadband connection to thrive, but after the last year and a half how many deep down truly believe this is the case?

I would argue that any company thinking about a fully remote world is entering into a short-termist lose-lose for both employer and employee where ‘jobs’ are turned into ‘tasks’ and any immediate gains in efficiency are outweighed by long-term mortgaging of true productivity and innovation. Below I’ve outlined a few of the reasons why…

Erosion of social capital and company culture
It’s really really difficult to set norms when you can’t see how other people behave and what is expected. Yes, this can be done remotely, but it’s hard work over video calls and for my own team, it was when I started during the depths of the pandemic bringing them into a WeWork for an ‘essential’ office day at least once a week that we really began to gel. At the same time, successful collaboration needs trust. For many more senior members of staff, they may already have built this but it is depleted during time apart and as new people join, that existing capital is also diluted. In this case, absence does not make the heart grow fonder.

Higher Barriers to collaboration
If you ask a quick question you need to book a 15 minute call, the barrier to doing so increases. People are more likely to struggle through than trouble someone when there is a level of formality to doing so. For my own team, we combated this with an ‘open link’, a bookmarked Google Meet that was always available to jump into, even just for 2 mins. Anything that took more than two replies on Slack would be dealt with instead verbally in a minute or two. And Slack is awful, with it’s constant pings, it is more often abused than well used.

Death of innovation
Yes, you can probably get people to produce more Powerpoint slides without the distraction of a 15 minute chat by the coffee machine; but will they decide to replace the deck with an employee podcast whilst sitting at home ploughing through charts? The sparks that come from those serendipitous connections are real and while not every office is designed to do this well, this is an argument for better spaces not an atomised workforce

A lost generation
All of the above has the biggest, most disproportionate impact on those at the start or early stages of their career. Informal learning, mirroring of professional norms, demonstration of company culture and behaviour are all vital to those starting out, and comes from being around others, especially those with more experience. For senior folk who are excited about 30 mins longer in bed or extra time with their kids, they are pulling the ladder up behind them. We learnt from being in that environment themselves, and I’d argue it’s our responsibility to show up and pass forward this knowledge.

Rant Over.

What this is not is an impassioned plea for a return to the bad old days. I have been lucky enough to have mostly worked for agencies or in tech businesses where the office environment was very intentionally vibrant, with spaces for collaboration and inspiration. I believe everyone deserves better offices and no-one deserves to be forced into even the nicest corporate HQ 5 days a week. But even before the pandemic, people were already flexing. We need to move beyond the atomised task rabbit, performing the rote-learnt elements of their role home alone and the cubicle farm. We need flexible working, better offices and face to face collaboration both for the health of our colleagues and the wealth of our businesses.

Talent and the power of doubt

Sitting in a windowless conference suite in Tokyo last year a few weeks into a new role at a new company, I listened to a company chief sketch out the conundrum which he saw the business in. He explained, that morning, to the half-bored, half-hungover leaders and middle-managers that, because ‘we had optimised for IQ,’ we were inevitably short on emotional intelligence. In his eyes, because they had hired so many (allegedly) ‘brilliant smart people’ such as those assembled in the room, that we were low on empathy and understanding. This was, in his view, because ‘EQ and IQ tend to be inversely correlated. I have to say the blinding idiocy of this has stuck with me for a long time and makes it hard for me not to think I am in the wrong place.

Then again, it’s probably statements like that which mean I am exactly where I am needed…

I fundamentally disagree with this assertion for a number of reasons. Not least of which is that it is heavy enough with implicit gendering that you could throw it into the deep end of the school pool for swim-test day. Likewise even if we were to assume that a certain kind of analytical business-focussed brains did preclude emotional smarts ( and that is a fucking big pass…) then it would be an admission that they were hiring only one very specific strain of what could be considered intelligent. Countless studies have shown that a diverse group of average or even ‘below average’ (whatever the fuck average means) people outperform a monoculture of overachievers. Not the smartest move. But there is a third element here that I want to think about – doubt.

Now, doubt can be seen as an unwanted side-effect of EQ, but I would argue that doubt and emotional sensitivity are part of the same thing. If you wrongly assume that you are hiring the most intelligent when you hire the most self-assured you create a self-fulfilling prophecy. And you may not hire the smartest people.

Think of it this way – how smart can you be if you are really sure? Would you stake your next three months salary on that thing that you are sure of? Your entire career? A relative’s life? Fantastic if you can. The world needs believers. The world also needs clear-headed analytical thinkers that can take emotion out of a decision when they need to. But their EQ in many way is unrelated. And with emotion comes doubt. It is the awareness of others, other possibilities, the consequences of other convictions and beliefs, even if they could be wrong.

The very best people I have worked with have combined self-awareness with doubt. They know what they are good at, they understand their abilities as well as their limitations and are unafraid to articulate them. But they do not ‘believe’ their own hype. They may light fires at work, but they never suck the oxygen out so that there is no room for alternative viewpoints. The very best leave space in their own minds for the ambiguities. They can be decisive when they need to, but they decide having looked at something from all side and through the eyes of others. They are hugely intelligent because they harness their emotional understanding in order to do that. It is that same understanding that allows them to hire people who aren’t like them, diametrically opposite even, because they can see what they bring.

Be wary of anyone that claims to be certain.

Struggling with cultural relitavism

Fail to plan has been freelancing in Pakistan. For the past week I have been in Islamabad and Karachi, trying to get a handle on Pakistan’s affluent youth and the contradictions at the heart of their current mentality. More on that later this week if I have the time while I am writing up this project here in Dubai. This initial post is a more personal reflection.

During this trip to Pakistan, I was lucky enough to lead a few groups and carry out a number of at-home interviews, arranged by the client’s Business Intelligence team to try and give me a handle on the culture and more specifically, our target audience. In a country where the scale that reaches from richest to poorest is quite so stretched and this is quite so obvious after the most casual of observations, we knew that those we were talking to were very much of the top third of that spectrum. The client wanted us to focus on an educated, affluent, 14-24 year old target, to get a handle on their hopes, fears and aspirations, as well as their attitude to the internet and their mobile phones. Knowing we were in a country with around 12% net penetration and all the consumers we spoke to were home broadband users gives you some idea of how high up the socio-economic scale we were operating.

One interview particularly made it very difficult for me to maintain the Critical Theorist’s orthodoxy on cultural relativism- that people’s lives should be viewed within the context of their culture, rather than from the viewpoint of one’s own. One of the girls that we had an at home visit with, let’s call her Sabeen, was 18, bright, engaging and well educated. She said that she loved maths, and that she enjoyed school. But at the end of this final school year, she was stopping. Not to join the workplace or go to university, but to be married, (and ‘be’ rather than ‘get’ is important here- it is a passive act for her). Now even bearing in mind the standard ‘family support network’ ‘culturally traditional’ ‘successful track record’ ‘marriage is used for different reasons’ ‘family knows you better than you know yourself’ smattering of arguments, I found the interview with her at times uncomfortable. Faced with Sabeen’s confused smile when I asked her, when she said in five years time that she ‘will be’ married, whether that was that she aspired to as as well as believed, I struggled to hold on to that relativist position. This was not something to be questioned, it was a statement of fact, something operating on level below conscious choice, not even a default, but something preordained.

Sabeen said she wanted to be a teacher, or to at least tutor primary school children while she is waiting to be married, but she wasn’t allowed out to do that. She was up at 6 making the family breakfast, and after a morning at the girls college she would be back at midday to make the family lunch. Cleaning in the afternoon, then school work, then the family’s dinner. And her mother was at home, and they had household help. It wasn’t that they needed her assistance, its that it was part of her preparation, her training. Her two younger sisters would step up to take this role in her place when the time came as they transitioned through puberty. Her two brothers had the family computer in their room. She said she wanted to use it to study, but that they would not let her without their supervision and only for short periods of time. Her friends went out for gelato and did other things that middle class Pakistani girls in Islamabad did. They didn’t ostracise her for it, but she did not participate. Not could, ‘could not’ would imply an option. This was not atypical of the many of the girls in the groups, but this was the most pronounced.

She smiled almost beatifically, serene. There was a smart young woman, who wanted to teach but instead was following what had been set out for her. It wasn’t even a case of accepting her fate. That implied that there could be another option, that at some point that alternative route was blocked off. It was breathtakingly beautiful and breathtakingly sad. I wanted to scream, to shout that she should be able to do what she wanted, fulfil her own potential, every single trite, western liberal cliche that I had tried to check at the door. I bit my tongue and smiled and nodded, avoided leading questions, suspended my disbelief and probed in a dispassionate, detached but interested way, but it was one of the hardest, most fascinating days at work I have ever had. Often you know something, but you can’t truly understand until you experience it, until you meet it, you can’t comprehend it. I still maintain that you have to contextualise everyones’ life narratives, and not assume that your own compass is guardian of some cultural or moral absolute but it is hard sometimes when you look back at something you have experienced that is so radically different from your own norms, something that you see as wasted opportunity, to still withhold judgement.