Work, business & professional services

Only the lonely

Believe it or not, the UK appointed a minister for loneliness in 2017, who announced that nine million people in the country suffer from loneliness. It was also pointed out that long-term loneliness can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. (Heaven help people that are lonely and smoke 15 cigarettes a day.)

Hardly a surprise, then, that workplace loneliness is on the rise. The main culprit here is undoubtedly working practices, especially the popularity of working outside an office, particularly at home. Part-time work, flexitime, and zero-hours contracts are also contributory factors, as is hotdesking and shared spaces.

Technology enables these working styles, but it is a factor in other ways too. If people do travel to a physical office, the first thing they tend to do is switch on a computer, put on headphones and look down, which cuts them off from the people around them. Hardly conducive to being sociable.

But there are generational, behavioural and attitudinal factors at play too, many of which have been shaped by a climate of workplace fear and political correctness. Work is no longer as sociable as it used to be. People don’t go out to the pub, or out to lunch, as frequently as they once did. They tend to stay stuck to their desks at lunchtime, work late and then go straight home. Workplace banter is now a minefield to be carefully navigated too.

So, what’s the solution? Talking to people in person is one straightforward idea. So too is having physical rather than virtual meetings. Or implementing quiet spaces or tech-free days once a week. Even inviting people out to lunch, offering to make coffee, or bringing in a cake to share can contribute to workers feeling more connected.

Re: Daily Telegraph (UK) 18.06.18, The rising epidemic of workplace loneliness and why we have no office friends by J. Carnegie.

Strategies for turbulent times

The relative calm of the 1980s through to the mid-2000s has been replaced with an age of volatility and great uncertainty. How should firms respond?

The first thing you can do is have a clear sense of identity and purpose. As Victor Frankl once put it, quoting Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” A sense of purpose, future vision or mission creates a direction, which enables stability. But you need to stay true to this purpose. Change it, or the narrative that surrounds it, at your peril.

Second, look beyond the short term. Family firms and cooperatives are especially good at doing this.

Third, create agility and resilience through continuous experimentation, but such experimentation must be guided by a central strategy if one is to avoid aimlessly lunging at one opportunity after another.

Finally, and most importantly of all, focus on people. Technology is all the rage these days, but you still need people to deliver technology. Attracting and retaining talent is far more important than anything else a company or organisation does and the best way to do this is by having a magnetic purpose that goes beyond mere money. Treating employees as adults, personalising contracts and conditions (e.g. allowing people to work when they want, up to a point) and focussing on intangible elements of compensation packages can help too. So too can building a workforce that’s truly diverse and age-agnostic, where people are rewarded for ideas and performance, not years worked.

Ref: London Business School Review Issue 1, 2017 ‘How to future-proof your firm’ by L. Gratton and 'lessons for Leaders in turbulent times’ by D. Houlder and N. Nandkishore.

The future of business schools

In 2017, 11 million people applied to study at business schools.

Why? The short answer has traditionally been higher salaries and networking opportunities, but given that a top-class two-year MBA can cost as much as $150,000, is it really worth it? Is the MBA becoming the grand tour in an age of Airbnb?

The answer to this question will very much depend on whether or not business is seen as being cool, or worthwhile, by the next generation. If it is then shorter, snappier courses, especially in specific areas, should be the saviour of the b-schools. But if younger people start to question the purpose, or ethics, of global business, and business becomes a socially unacceptable profession (as it was several generations ago), then the ‘b’ in ‘b-school’ might be stand for something else.

There’s also the thought that perhaps the people that do standard MBAs would still be successful if they didn’t. Most are very smart and well motivated, so what exactly is a b-school bringing to the table? Moreover, as Will Dean, the founder of Tough Mudder (Harvard Business School class of 2008) points out in his memoir It Takes a Tribe, MBAs do teach a few things, but how to be a nimble-footed, open-minded entrepreneurial is rarely one of them. His example is the famous spaghetti challenge, where teams have to build the highest possible tower using a marshmallow, a roll of tape, a ball of string and 20 pieces of dry spaghetti. In research, the teams that performed best at this task were kindergarten kids. MBAs performed worst, largely because they spent most of their time arguing, making calculations, and drawing up blueprints. The kids, in contrast, immediately started playing.

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 7-8.10.17, ‘The business school tradition feels like an outdated grand tour’ by OP. Delves Broughton. See also The Economist (World in 2010), ‘Falling out of love with business’ by L. Kellaway.

The gig economy and the backlash against it

One of the biggest trends in business recently has been the growth of the gig economy, which Robert Reich, former US Labor Secretary, has called the “sharing-the-scraps economy”.

If you’ve been away for the past decade, the gig economy is, broadly speaking, an app-based economy in which you can summon more or less anything instantly, from a taxi or a meal to a bed or some dry cleaning. Unfortunately, at the end of most apps is a human being, often being paid close to minimum wage with no guarantee of minimum hours. This works, because these companies have minimal overheads, which makes them cheap to use. But while this works for the companies and their customers, the cost to their so-called employees can be high. Typically, freelance workers have no paid holidays, no sick pay, no overtime and no right to join a union.

This is empowering for some, in the sense that you don’t have to sit in an office or be in a factory 8 hours a day, but is this really anything more than old-fashioned exploitation? Uber, for instance, expects its drivers to provide their own car and purchase their own smartphone, while Uber determines fares and deactivates drivers if their ratings fall below a certain level. The app can hire you, but it can also fire you. But even if you work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, you will still be a contractor and not legally an Uber employee, which, of course, makes the company exempt from the laws that have been created over a century or more to protect workers. Uber is a hugely valuable company, but it hasn’t created a single staff job for anyone that provides its core service.

The danger here, clearly, is that the gig economy, far from liberating, creates a race to the bottom in which people end up working longer, for less, with fewer benefits and more uncertainty.

Ref: Sunday Times magazine (UK) 10.07.16, (no title) by J. Arlidge.

What’s wrong with work?

According to Jules Goddard, a fellow at the London Business School, one of the main things that’s wrong with work is the inflexibility of the employment contract.

People are generally expected to be at work five days a week, which means attending an office. But this formulaic approach kills creativity and dulls enthusiasm. We hear a lot about the agile corporation, yet companies persist with having hugely inflexible expectations about how, where and when work is carried out.

You might reasonably argue that cutting work from five to four days would negatively impact the economy and, in turn, impact employment and salaries. Not necessarily. This was exactly the argument 100 years ago, when companies started to move from six- to five-day workweeks. Furthermore, the five-day week makes two false assumptions. First, that there’s a positive correlation between hours worked and productivity and, second, that few people would exchange money for additional time off. But fewer hours means less time to waste. Longer weekends and a shorter-hours culture tend to refresh and stimulate the mind, and more free time creates a more energised and happier workforce. A four-day week also attracts and retains key talent, especially millennials, who frankly have better things to do much of the time.

Our adherence to strict working practices and tightly defined roles is also as outdated as our obsession with managerialism and measurement. Neither is now delivering when it comes to growth or innovation. What’s needed, perhaps, is a more open, flexible and personalised approach. Something else that’s needed is capital that’s patient. One way to do this would be to release public companies from their obligation to report quarterly. Another way might be to make asset managers personally (not corporately) responsible for their actions and distinguish between long-term investors and short-term traders and speculators (and algorithms), possibly via different classes of shareholdings and debt (and possibly taxation).

Overall, such moves would address a major source of inequality in society, which is the disparity between those exercising the power and those submitting to it. Redesigning work, so that people typically worked for companies as ‘apprentices’ for 20-25 years before moving on to either mentor or set up their own spin-off firms — which the parent firms would invest in — would also be a game-changer.

Ref: London Business School Review (UK), Issue 1, 2017, ‘Work is sick. Here’s the cure’ by J. Goddard.