Firms overlook the importance of nurturing young staff in the office at their peril

It was encouraging to read this report from the Guardian. A survey has shown that COVID-19 has changed attitudes to home working for the long term.

This is very good news. A healthy element of home working is good for the mental health of workers, saves on carbon emissions and reduces transport snafus.

But I am glad that the Guardian report has put the emphasis on a blended approach. That is, a mixture of home and office working.

The survey was done by the British Council for Offices. Their chief executive, Richard Kauntze remarked:

The idea that people will return to the five-day week in the office has gone, and I think a much more blended approach is likely, two or three days in the office and two-three at home or wherever is going to be a much more typical pattern. Most people will value being able to work on that basis.

Now long into bucket list-ticking retirement, I worked for a firm that ran out of office space (more or less) and then went mad on home working. They virtually had bouncers on the office door turning people away and sending them home. I had to get sign-off from my boss’s boss to have a desk with my nameplate above it – and that took several weeks of deliberation.

But then a new chief executive came in who, one day, decided she wanted to have a chat with some of her staff. So she walked around the HQ looking for people to chat to. She was absolutely aghast to find nothing but empty desks.

So we went from one extreme to the other, and staff were not allowed to work from home unless they had specific permission from their boss for a particular day or two.

But we really must get away from debating extreme binary positions on this issue. It is not a question of home working versus office working. It is a question of getting the balance right between them – a blended approach.

Office working is a absolutely essential to form teams and engender collaboration. It is also indispensable in training and coaching young staff. I’m not talking about formal classroom training here. I’m talking about casual chatter. Coffee machine chat between inexperienced and experienced staff. It’s “learning by natural osmosis” rather than “training” per se.

The firm I worked for found that it is vital to have office working to a significant degree. Without it, young staff do not get the benefit of shared experience from older or more experienced staff. As a result, basically the whole
knowledge base of your company more or less collapses.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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19 Comments

  • Peter Watson 5th Oct '20 - 3:56pm

    A very interesting article, and it certainly chimes with my experience during lockdown.
    As I got more used to working from home and Stockholm Syndrome kicked in so I decided I like my family after all, my plans for the new normal (if or when it ever arrives) evolved from thinking I’d try to continue working from home one day a week to wondering if office-based days could become the exception.

  • Tony Ferguson 6th Oct '20 - 9:13am

    I had wondered about this myself – as someone who always worked from home one day a week switching to five days a week has been very productive but I could not see how you would induct new team members and up skill them without a physical office to go to

  • Innocent Bystander 6th Oct '20 - 11:43am

    Paul,
    Well done for raising, sympathetically, the effect of this hysteria on our young.
    One our sons is a bachelor and used to enjoy the companionship of work and his voluntary work he did at the weekends. Both have gone. Since March he has had neither and spends 24/7 alone in his little house.
    So I get a little bit riled when I hear pensioners telling us about their fear of death (as if it wasn’t lined up anyway) and how well they have coped with just their partners , their children and their grandchildren for company.
    This nation is becoming a badly wounded and unhappy place which no amount of enforced jollity by TV celebrities will heal.
    The ONS announced 215 covid deaths last week (out of 10,000). 215 tragedies but nowhere near enough to destroy the livelihoods of millions and wreak irreparable mental health damage on the already isolated.

  • I had to get sign-off from my boss’s boss to have a desk with my nameplate above it
    When was that?
    I last had a desk with my name on it back in 1994, been hotdesking/home/client/mobile ever since.

    Looking back, I would agree with Paul that in a virtual office environment, on-boarding new staff and trainees particularly, can no longer be treated casually, they have to be assigned coaches/mentors, attend induction courses/events, ie. the process has to become visible and slightly more formal. As Ian Sanderson alludes to, much of this isn’t ‘new’, there is much experience dating back several decades, you just need to know where to look and apply sensibility to your own situation.

    The real problem with CoViD19 is that it is also hindering the building of social networks – here I’m talking about real world inperson face-to-face socialisation not Facebook et al. In the new world of home working, your non-work related social networks take on a new importance.

  • Innocent Bystander

    I don’t think you should re-play your opinion of retired people in this context.

    The government was encouraging people to return to offices for several months in the summer.

    Now there is no law to say your son must stay at home. The current guideline – note it is a guideline only – is:

    “Office workers should work from home if they can. Employers should ensure workplaces are safe for anyone who cannot work from home.“

    If retired people had persuaded the government to make it a law that people should work from home, then I could understand your repeated rant at them.

    But they haven’t. There is nothing to stop people from working in the office if their employer is able to provide a safe environment for them.

    Someone close to me has been working in their normal office environment for the past four months non-stop.

    So you are somewhat tilting at a windmill.

  • Innocent Bystander – I’m sorry I rile you. According to you my fear of death from Covid-19 is annoying because, as a pensioner, I’m going to die anyway. I was actually expecting to live another 20 or so years as my mother and both my grandmothers had done, but apparently it will be no-one’s loss if I shuffle off now.

    Of course, I remember that just a few weeks ago you were the person who said we didn’t need to wear facemasks because the epidemic is over in the UK.

    However, this post is discussing how we can blend office and home based working, so please keep to the subject.

  • Innocent Bystander 8th Oct '20 - 7:04pm

    Paul,
    The only things stopping my son going into the office are
    a) it’s locked
    and
    b) there’s no one there.
    There could be, as you say, but there isn’t. As you say, employers can ensure safe workplaces within the guidelines. Or they could just not bother and lock the doors.
    But hey, so what? Those whose life choices have now been massively damaged have only themselves to blame for not fitting in with the new rules and have the “wrong” type of social circle.
    Mary,
    Firstly, I wish you a long and healthy life but my contribution was exactly to the point of the balance between home and office working and Paul talked about some office time to help the young. Well some are experiencing zero time with no prospect of any for some indefinite time, at least months and maybe years.
    I have no faith in the “we’ll meet again one day” nonsense. There is no plausible end scenario. Frankly, the doom sayers can, and will, play the “huge death toll just around the corner” at any hint of relaxation. There will always be cases as there are cases of influenza now.
    To return to normal there would have to be recognition, by the “authorities”, that the covid death toll was low enough to accept it as a normal risk.
    Well, to any sensible view that happened months ago.

  • Innocent Bystander 8th Oct '20 - 9:48pm

    Paul,
    I am sorry I did not reply to your point on pensioners. I am one myself but your op ed was about the value of home working and the need for a blended approach.
    Couldn’t agree more but that aspect remains largely undebated and overlooked and the entire response has centred around social bubbles, essentially mechanisms to get isolated grandparents back together with grandchildren.
    No apparent national concern though, for those in isolation without grandchildren. Those whose human contact relied upon their employment, voluntary work, clubs and societies and who have lost all of those.
    Interestingly, we have three sons and a daughter in law, all in professional services. None have visited their employers premises since March except that, in the last three weeks one son has gone in once per week. However, for safety reasons, his workteam go on different days so he sees no one anyway!
    Their employers have made many efforts since March altering procedures and setting up paperless systems with the apparent aim of doing without physical premises at all.
    Make of that future what you will.

  • But none of that is the fault of “pensioners” or government regulations.

  • Innocent Bystander 8th Oct '20 - 11:12pm

    The response to covid is very much in the hands of the government. Working from home was a government edict following a strict national lockdown. The motivation has been entirely to protect vulnerable pensioners and has been declared to be so from the start and has been the sole national focus despite obvious and well predicted collateral damage.
    And the consequences for young people to which you referred and to which I added personal detail follow unquestionably and indisputably from that.
    Measured and sensible voices warned that irreversible damage was being done to employment and mental health and that has happened. Irreversible is the key word here. The cosy notion that if we all pull together we could get through this and come out the other side was always juvenile folly.
    Government exhortation to go back to the office now is too late. What has been destroyed and lost has been lost forever.

  • Innocent Bystander

    Your argument appears to be stuck in a rut.

    Why not face facts? The government’s rules allow office working. Many people work in offices.

    You need to focus on the firms. They are the ones making decisions about office working based on safety considerations.

    You say yourself “However, for safety reasons, his workteam go on different days so he sees no one anyway“.

    Ah.

    “Safety reasons”.

    Ah.

    So are you saying that your son’s firm’s assessment of “safety reasons” is wrong?

  • Innocent Bystander 9th Oct '20 - 3:33pm

    Paul,
    The govt opened this Pandora’s box. It overturned the economy and the world of work.
    It has defined new “guidelines”, Businesses didn’t define them and they weren’t asked, but business then decide, for themselves, whether they can, can’t, or won’t implement them. Maybe their premises just aren’t suitable. Maybe they have learnt how to do without a physical presence. Maybe the directors think it’s all too difficult and it’s time to run it down and out. It’s astonishing how disobedient people can be, but that’s years in a free society for you.
    I don’t know, you don’t know and the govt doesn’t know what faces all these multi faceted companies. The govt have thought of a solution that fits everyone. Well maybe they haven’t.

    The govt’s impulsive and ill thought out response is the cause of this, not the firm’s, who were happily running their businesses but have now acted in an unintended way. I’m sure that those who welcomed and supported these draconian measures now want to clear their consciences and blame someone else for the consequences they were warned about.
    Frankly, I see an ever growing amount of this as the Dunkirk spirit evaporates and bad things emerge.
    ” We didn’t do it. It must be someone else. We didn’t want this to happen. If only…blah.. blah”.

    Bizarrely, this contretemps has ensued even though I completely agreed with your original piece and have only sought to show how the govts superficial “one solution fits all” just falls apart in the complex real world out there and that drastic measures however well intentioned backfire all over the place leaving unexpected casualties and victims.
    Best to handle a crisis with care and thought and don’t panic (I won’t finish that sentence!)

    BTW I am sure that the firm’s safety response is based on science made up on the spot.
    As is the scientific certainty that if pubs close at 10:00 we are all perfectly safe but if at 10:05 the streets will be strewn with unburied cadavers. In Scotland if you have a glass of lemonade you are safe from Covid. But turn that into a bitter shandy and you are doomed. And this is following the science??

  • Innocent Bystander

    Firms can still have employees in the office and many do. Someone very close to me has worked in the office for the last four months with many colleagues.

    This may have something to do with having recently installed state-of-the-art air conditioning. Which seems a very science-based approach to me.

  • Innocent Bystander 9th Oct '20 - 8:12pm

    Thank you Paul and I am sure there are firms still using offices.
    I didn’t want to have a protracted discussion as I agreed with your theme of the importance of workplace contact. I just wanted to point out that there is a wide spectrum of consequences of the lockdown, which, even if you don’t see them, are very real for the sufferers.
    My TV set told me, this evening, that 90% of young people believe that their mental health has seriously suffered because of the lockdown and it’s been hard to watch my own son who enjoyed his workplace, his voluntary work and his clubs and societies but has lost all of them and has been in solitary confinement for six months now.
    And I can’t help being galled, for which I apologise by the endless images in print and broadcast media of jolly pensioners boasting about how they have used lockdown to crochet a lifesize replica of St. Paul”s Cathedral or some such when all the new rules revolve entirely around their life styles and needs and blindly disregard the other single person, isolated households.
    Again I apologise and best wishes for Christmas 2022 when we may be back to ‘normal’.
    But I doubt it.

  • Innocent Bystander

    Thank you.

    Perhaps you could balance that cathedral crocheting image with an equally anecdotal vision of a pensioner – me – contacting the Samaritans on VE Day because I was starting to feel mentally ill due to the lockdown.

    I am sure there are plenty like me of all ages – and many much worse off in their mental health.

  • Innocent Bystander 9th Oct '20 - 9:42pm

    Paul,
    I acknowledge and admire your openness. Despite everything, mental illness remains a much neglected and unappreciated crisis having watched my own sons relentless descent.
    My very best wishes to you.

  • Thank you Innocent Bystander – and best wishes to your son too.

  • James Fowler 17th Oct '20 - 1:26pm

    Before this conversation go somewhat sidetracked, there was a very interesting point being made about implicit knowledge and social capital. Organisations depend not just on what is explicitly known but also on the transmission of implicit knowledge, usually through informal social contact. When this stops, the unwritten social contracts which underpin workplaces breaks down in all sorts of ways which are necessarily unforeseeable (how do you know what is intangible?).

    My personal hunch, nothing more, is that due to the breakdown of informal controls and social networks at work large numbers of people have been able to quietly develop sidelines which are currently invisible to their colleagues/employers. Hence much of the reluctance to return. At the same time, many firms have discovered that no longer having to provide facilities saves money. Hence the reluctance to open.

    The question is, where does all this lead? In my opinion, nowhere good for most people. Firms will quietly, but remorselessly, either shed staff or write down their pay and benefits to reflect the ‘new’ conditions. Right now it’s still OK for enough people who are pocketing the concealed benefits – though there are fewer jobs every day, and the new ones will take account of the changed conditions. Like I said back in March, be very careful what you wish for.

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