“The English are always ready to admire anything so long as they can queue up.”
Last week in Parliament. Winding lines of exasperated humans snake round an old Gothic palace. Frustration, disbelief and literal danger pulses through the avoidable queue. The most prestigious workplace in the land is ringing with angry voices lamenting an unproductive and inhuman process. Then in several acts of supreme cognitive dissonance, some of the loudest critics then step into the chamber to vote in favour of these plainly ludicrous working practices. Our MPs this week - after having found creative and effective ways to vote and govern over the past several months - have been forced to step back into the practices of the past for reasons that defy logic, courtesy and humanity.
In many ways, this is the perfect illustration of our fear to separate ourselves from the way we’ve always worked. We hesitate to deviate from inhuman and unproductive work rituals because there is an inexplicable comfort to be found in the familiar.
As a business who advocates the elevation of humanity in the workplace, we were never likely to hold the Leader of the Commons in particularly high regard. A father of 6 who prides himself in never having changed a nappy isn’t ever going to be an enlightened workplace tsar. Yet personal disdain aside, there is a wider lesson to take from this event.
When watching this farce unfold, I recalled the story told in Bruce Daisley’s excellent The Joy of Work in which he illustrates the experience of Dan Kieran, founder of the crowdfunded publishing platform Unbound. With ungarnished honesty, Dan details his personal battle to challenge the impulses of his “inner eighteenth-century mill owner” who sees success merely in the presence of people rather than the output. “If I can’t see you, then you’re not working. If I can’t see you, then the business will fail.”
We have all felt the swell of irritation that arises when other people don’t adhere to our own idea of an effective working day. We’ve all had thoughts along the lines of; “They’re late again. Off for another brew? They’re getting away with murder. If only they could be more like me.”
We tend to afford ourselves the luxury of exceptionalism because we know that we will work hard when no eyes are on us. However, we also assume that others are inherently untrustworthy and need to be cajoled with a sharp stick lest they descend into lazy, unproductive anarchy. Most people say that they only trust a small number of other colleagues, but that they themselves are entirely trustworthy. We clearly have a trust issue when it comes to work. It’s a strange tendency, and one that we will do well to shake off as we attempt to restructure workplaces in the future.
Much of the early lockdown optimism around how to harness the best elements of our new work reality has dissipated. Yet we need to fight hard not to let cynicism override our sense that things can - and should - be better. We’ve found positive ways of working that enable us to function well remotely. We found some brilliant ways to be efficient even when we couldn’t see the whites of each other’s eyes. The slide back towards the worst impulses of eighteenth century mill-owners is something that we should rail against. This moment represents an opportunity to cast off the shackles of outdated rituals.
Yet we will all now have to fight a little harder due to the dismissal of sensible work practices by the most prominent workplace in the UK.
4and20million are enormous advocates of human connection. Where possible, we actively seek moments where individuals can come together because that’s when brilliant, unexpected things can happen. It’s true that as a team of three, our ability to support each other has been diminished by the lack of face to face time. Raised eyebrows when a half-thought out plan is poorly articulated. The happy tears that fill eyes when we witness someone present to colleagues at the end of a training session and conquer their fear of public-speaking. The laughter that rings round a room when one of us inadvertently swallows a fly in the middle of a presentation. We miss these human interactions and we want those positive experiences back. That’s the human connection we miss. We certainly don’t pretend to be technology evangelists, although we rely heavily upon the best advances in order to make our business function. We simply believe in adopting methods that enhance our ability to do good, effective work in the best way possible. We passionately dispute that brilliant things can happen in a socially distanced queue full of seething resentment.
Surely we must all now advocate moving away from the old measure of presenteeism and focusing more on the outputs? We need to cast a critical eye over how we work together. We should consider which parts from our past we should welcome back. There is a real danger of rushing back to what we had simply because we had it.
Here in Manchester, a fantastic initiative has been the collaboration between The Growth Company & GM Local Enterprise Partnership with their new Building Back Better campaign. Led by Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, this is a regional collective that has attempted to cast off the fears that can grip us in a crisis. Instead, it is seeking and supporting new ideas about how we can work better together in the future. The ambition of the project spans across infrastructure, healthcare, environment, how to foster a spirit of positive entrepreneurship and how to create opportunities and reasons to be optimistic for young people across the region. This is Manchester at its best, with businesses and individuals actively contributing towards a positive plan of action. We have high hopes for the project.
On a national scale, we believe that the oft-evoked and effectively nebulous ‘Great British Public’ would appreciate it if their MP could work in a place that enabled them to spend more time considering the issues that matter. A place in which they can remain healthy and devote their energies to the job in hand. A place designed to help them make swift, effective decisions rather than being forced to stand for hours in what resembles a queue for the world’s most disappointing theme park ride.
We all know that time is valuable. Let’s not waste it by reverting to the unnecessary inefficiencies of the past simply because we lack the imagination, energy or bravery to harness more effective - and more human - working practices.