Why sowing division over working patterns won’t work

A response to William Hague’s article in today’s Times which warns older workers that their younger counterparts will climb over them if they continue to work remotely after Covid.

 

There have been a lot of foolish things written during the pandemic, as well as, of course, insightful comment. But there are some articles that really get to you. In today’s Times, William Hague, former leader of the Tory party, wrote an opinion piece which, instead of doing something positive and bringing people together, sought to further divisions. He suggested that young people – Generation X – who return to the office could get promoted and get ahead on the backs of older people who might be working more from home after the pandemic. He warned mid-career employees that ambitious Generation Z employees “will not be short of single-mindedness and stamina” and are anxious to get back to the office.

There is so much that is wrong about that line of argument that it is hard to begin to unpick it. Firstly, the picture it paints of young people is not one that I recognise from living and working with young people [my other job is dealing with students…]. They are more worried about things like the planet, their own well being and doing something with a broader meaning, though clearly I would not ever be so unwise as to attempt to speak for young people or generalise about all young people  [I’m a mum of teenagers…]. Hague seems to be stuck in the 1980s. The world has moved on.

Moreover, the difference between Generation Z and Generation X when it comes to flexible working is maybe not as big as it might seem and it must be remembered that hybrid working involves time in the office. Yes, there are issues around starting out and needing more support, but different polls present different data and much depends on circumstances, for instance, whether you have somewhere you can easily work remotely [not just your home…]. And not all young people’s social life centres around work.

Secondly, stamina. Presumably older workers, such as parents or carers, have been lacking in stamina despite having to work through the pandemic – often working longer hours – while also homeschooling or caring for children or vulnerable relatives. Presumably it does not require stamina to do that and the only thing that counts in life is being “ambitious” and “single minded” and willing to sell your soul to your job and climb over everyone else to get ahead.

Thirdly, is single mindedness a good thing? Certainly not if we want to bring up a happier, healthier generation or to understand the pressures most people – customers/clients/readers/audience – face. How many massive mistakes have been made, for instance, in financial services by people single mindedly pursuing their own interests?

Fourthly, Hague feeds into anxiety among older people about being left behind. Surveys already show that women are more likely to want hybrid or remote working, though more men are seeking it as a result of the Covid experience. One major concern is that less time in the office means fewer chances of promotion and/or bonuses. Research shows this has happened in the past and many women who have been working from home will be able to vouch for that.  Yet if men don’t do flexible working more nothing much will change. There is a danger that Covid leads to more women working remotely or in a hybrid way and falling further behind men who are visible in the office no matter how well they do their jobs. A recent nudge unit report shows men perceive that their colleagues are more likely to be against flexible working than they actually are. The problem is not other people; the problem is systemic. Employers need to change the way people are rewarded and ‘seen’.

I spoke to a friend the other day. I asked her about how her office is integrating hybrid working post-Covid. She said it was too expensive to put screens in meeting rooms so remote people can join. Yet the office is full of tech equipment. She said it was too difficult to do Zoom calls at her desk because it is distracting. Yet in the old days newsrooms were full of people doing interviews on the phone and there were no headphones…These sorts of excuses are just lazy thinking and a sign of an unwillingness to change. That is not a good enough reason not to do something.

Hague’s article is another sign of resistance, a throwback to a time gone by and an attempt to sow yet more division in the face of overwhelming demand for change. Do we need any more division right now? This idea that only working in the office five days a week – or more – counts when it comes to getting ahead has to go.



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