23 Jul STAY ALERT. CONTROL THE VIRUS. SAVE PRET A MANGER
As the thermometer nudged 35C the other afternoon, I was wondering why we refer to ‘the dog days of summer’.
It turns out the phrase was one used by the Greeks and Romans referring to the dog star, Sirius, and its position in the heavens. Whatever the original meaning, as I look at Charlie, our Pyrenean Mountain dog, panting in the heat, it seems to me that right now are the dog days of summer.
Usually, this is my favourite time of year. It’s now that our tranquil corner of the Gers comes to life. Throughout July and August, villages large and small hold their annual fetes. And of course, there’s the world-renowned Marciac Jazz Festival. We party hard, enjoying time with our friends and communities, and mingling with the 200,000 visitors who descend on our neighbouring village for three weeks of wall-to-wall jazz.
Not this year. And while I can see that there’s a chance that by this time next year villages will be able to hold their fetes, at this point, I find it hard to imagine a time when we might be gathering in our thousands again. Life isn’t getting back to normal any time soon.
The Financial Times (FT) reported this week that RBS had told some 50,000 employees that they should expect to continue working from home ‘until at least 2021’. This despite Boris Johnson’s proclamation last week that people could return to their workplaces from next month (although RBS’s decision is of course in line with the advice from Johnson’s chief scientific adviser that people should continue to work from home if they can).
This is where we are at. The government – understandably – has switched the emphasis from staying at home to get the virus under control and avoid overwhelming the NHS, to getting the economy opened up again as quickly as is prudently possible.
One unforeseen consequence of the lockdown is that thousands of employers and millions of employees have realised that working from home, well, works. What appears to be a relatively small minority have not coped well with working from home for various reasons (and it seems that wherever possible employers have allowed those employees to go back to the workplace). Still, the vast majority have discovered what I did almost 20 years ago. Not spending two hours a day with your nose jammed into someone’s armpit is quite pleasant. Without the continual small distractions of working with others, you can be far more productive, and you get a better work/life balance.
How many dads have discovered the joys of being able to kick a ball about in the garden with their kids of an early evening? How many commuting parents have got used to being there for bath time, or reading a bedtime story every night? Of not needing a couple of hours (and maybe a certain amount of alcohol 😉) to decompress at the end of a long day? How many stay at home mums are enjoying having more help with the kids?
I doubt that this cohort is going to work from home five days a week. But two or three is workable and means that there shouldn’t be any deterioration in the strength of ‘the team’, onboarding new employees should continue to work just fine, and the ‘water cooler’ bright ideas can still happen.
RBS isn’t the first, and it won’t be the last. All of our clients who work and with whom we’ve been in contact in recent weeks report the same thing – no one is even thinking of going back to the office before September, if not the end of the year. Our office building, pre-pandemic, probably housed several hundred people. Now, on a typical day, there are thirteen people in the entire building.
It’s no longer a question of health v the economy. This is a generational shift in working patterns, and yes, the sector of the economy which caters to those who work in large cities is going to suffer. Many probably won’t survive. And pity those business owners who believe their employees need to be watched like children and can’t be trusted to work unsupervised (oh yes, they still exist. The comments section of the FT is testament to that). Offering the option to work from home a couple of days a week may well become the new ‘must-have’ to attract the best staff.
As with any significant societal change, there will be winners and losers. But isn’t that how capitalism works?