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Culture wars part 1: Empty desks

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In part one of our deep-dive into ‘culture wars’, we explore the chasm that’s opening up between the stalwart ‘you must be in the office’ types and the ‘I get more done from home’ brigade. Join us each week as we explore a new topic, and question what issues and opportunities culture wars throw up for organisations everywhere.

Recently, Conservative and Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg visited several civil service locations around the capital. For every empty desk found, with the incumbent still working from home, a note was left saying ‘sorry you were out, hope to see you back at your desk soon’. Let’s dig into that meaty bit of office politics (which has been labelled as ‘condescending’), and ultimately, forced culture.

Barely two years ago, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s leader and our Prime Minister told everyone emphatically, civil servants included, that working from home was essential for saving lives and taking the pressure off the NHS.

As the pandemic’s misery grew and became elongated, we realised returning to the office anytime soon was unrealistic. We swiped the crap off our dusty old desks at home, ordered new ones from IKEA at our own expense, or crammed around the kitchen table, trying our best to be productive while the kids watched their teacher on an iPad.

This is called culture at the deep end. Or trial by fire. We were taken out of our normal, desk-based routines and shoved into a living nightmare where home and work lives were blended.

So, now that Covid is over (when it really actually isn’t), our leaders are pushing us back to the days of everyone at their desks, figures back to normal, and the funny little 9-5 world, in an attempt to wrestle us back into the habits that worked so well before.

But can we really go back?

The problem is, the cultural shift has had a way bigger impact than some leaders could ever imagine.

Before Covid, progressive leaders were already seeing the benefits of remote / hybrid work, hot desking, WFH days and flexible hours. Finally, the draconian ‘you must be at your desk in work hours’ was being looked at. In the modern world, where it’s super easy to measure performance and communication with technology, we finally had the freedom to drop off and pick up our kids at sensible times, attend sports day without a day’s annual leave, lie in until 10am with a hangover or clock off at 3pm on Friday after making up the hours on Monday and Tuesday.

And when forced working from home hit, we all got a taste. The funny thing is, lots of us enjoyed some of the benefits of remote working, whereas others were clawing at the opportunity to sit back at their desks.

Mr Rees-Mogg’s Victorian approach to forcing workers back into the office is a prime example of a culture war. He wants to see a culture of studious, engaged individuals administering away at their desks and keeping the wheels of the country turning.

However, the real culture is that civil servants are finding their roles are easier, more enjoyable, and they can be equally, if not more productive at home. And the big picture points to this being a reality across the entire nation, not even just the private sector. So why is Rees-Mogg so adamant that everyone needs to be back in the office?

Distrust and control

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s image of working from home = slacking is a common one among leaders. The inability to monitor and directly manage individuals in a physical space makes autocrats sweat, as control is removed and sightlines are restricted to a video call. But really, that forced culture is all wrong anyway.

If the civil servants were engaged, motivated and wanted to be at their desks in the first place, they’d be turning in every day, and there’d be no need for the silly little notes being left on their chairs.

Instead, if Jacob spent some time talking to civil servants, learning their needs, desires and behaviours (something we call a focus group in the employer branding world) and realising what kind of culture really exists, he’d learn why people were still working from home. And the results would probably surprise him.

He’d find that civil servants were able to get through their immense workload without superiors flying in with requests every hour, disrupting their day. He’d find that mothers could drop off their children on time, and fathers could pick them up at a sensible hour, and vice versa.

He’d find that the fears of Covid are still extremely pertinent for lots of people. He may even find that the workspaces in the capital are difficult (and expensive) to get to, uninspiring, and that the civil service would be better off selling them and diverting the funds somewhere else.

Or he could be proven completely right, and that people were clamouring to go back to the office, but the culture around them said otherwise! This is the beauty of actually speaking to employees.

And the result of this? People are ignoring this forced culture and establishing their own, with their peers and some managers wilfully rejecting Rees-Mogg’s unabashed autocracy for common sense – with work-from-home positions still being advertised. Copy and paste that response in organisations across the country seeing the same pressure to return to the office.

What could be done better?

Culture wars are present in every organisation in the country, whether we like it or not. The push and pull between the hierarchy and the foundations is something that we in the employer branding world strive to solve and talk about. Sadly, the propensity to swap time for money, and to hold our employees accountable if they don’t honour that strict agreement, is still ever-present, even though there’s tons of evidence that shows the contrary is way more effective.

And the result of this? Disengaged, inefficient teams who ignore or find a way around their leaders’ forced culture.

So what can we do, as leaders, to establish why our employees are rebelling against what we think is the best way forward.

- Find out why workers are carrying out the ‘unwanted’ behaviour

- Understand what has caused this

- Look at what can be done to restore balance, using feedback

- Establish the new culture, from the ground up

We’ll bet our bottom dollar that Jacob Rees-Mogg did none of these before deciding on a passive aggressive note that we’re sure only did wonders for the morale of civil servants who are already leaving for better opportunities in droves.

In next week’s instalment of culture wars, we look at capacity, and understand the battle between employees who feel they have too much to do, and the employers who think everyone can always do more.

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