Commuting a life sentence Part 2

All our yesterdays

Empty Rails - Jon Stow

It is almost ten years since I was an employee with a large firm, and at the time they were just thinking about the concept of hot-desking. I must admit I did not like the thought of not having my own space in the office, and having to scramble for one when I got to work.

I believe that we do need our own little workspace or territory and it needs to be a certain size. In my last job, the desks were so crammed together we could hardly move, and they had tried to alleviate the problem by having partitions around four feet high. I felt really hemmed in and uncomfortable in that environment. I was adequately compensated in financial terms up to the point I was included in their indiscriminate staff cuts, but I cannot say that the office environment was pleasant or conducive to allowing concentration on quite technical matters.

Behind the times

Hot-desking twenty years after the concept was thought of seems out-dated, but some of the big City corporates seem to think it is a really good idea, even for their senior staff. I would think it would be a real downer for morale because people are by nature territorial. Of course the idea is to save office space since not all office workers will be in at the same time. I think it could be costly in terms of production due to disaffection of the employees.

Well, you might argue, in the modern age we can work anywhere we wish. That is true in a sense. I take my netbook out and about and I have worked in cafes and hospital waiting rooms in the last few months. It is fine to work on the fly, but I have my own office back at base. Hot-desker employees do not have that refuge or nest to return to.

There is a problem in thinking with senior management, and especially those worried about security. We know that hackers can get into most systems eventually, but surely security could be good enough to allow most office-types to operate from their homes? That way they could have their own territory, feel less oppressed when they did need to go into the office to hot-desk, and they could save on their commuting costs. Need a meeting? We have VOIP and video conferencing. Have they seen the adverts?

Fat controllers

The problem is in management-think. There are many who do not trust even their most senior staff and best workers to apply themselves when out of sight of their boss. This reminds me of the old Bristow cartoons by Frank Dickens which ran for many years in the London Evening Standard. Bristow the buying clerk had a fearsome boss called Fudge who used to tower over Bristow and yell “Get on with your work”. It is precisely that attitude of control-freakery which still seems to reign and which is holding big business back, and requiring unnecessary commuting.

Employees work better when they are trusted and respect their managers. As long as there is good communication there should be no problem. I would have thought that providing more facilities for employees to work from home would more than satisfy the cost-cutting requirements without making the employees uncomfortable as they will be with a daily fight for a “nice” desk in the office.

Goodbye to All That

It might take ten or twenty years, but I believe the days of the daily commute for the majority of office workers are numbered. It is time that big corporates realized what we small business people already know: working from home or from your own chosen office or workspace makes you a lot happier, and also more efficient. How do you see this?

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How to get the best out of our employees and co-workers

In the late seventies, when of course I was very young, Britain organised a recession all for itself. It was punctuated and marked by industrial disputes and strikes, notably by the seamen, the public service workers, and of course the rail workers. I need to say that this is not going to be a union-bashing piece or even a Government-bashing piece, though we have a scene now in a new recession which is quite reminiscent of those bad old days. People now forget the strikes of the seventies were the raison d’être for the confrontation with the miners during the Thatcher years. There was an understandable feeling of “never again”. With hindsight, the approach might not have been quite right, but the thing about hindsight is that you do not have it until after the event.

At the time of writing we have threats of a national strike by the postal workers (threats of staff cuts and modernisation of working practices), and a strike by Corus steel workers (closure of its final salary pension scheme to new entrants, i.e. mainly people who have not joined the company yet). One by National Express Rail workers (pay offer above inflation deemed insufficient) has been settled. One supposes that all these disputes are over genuinely perceived issues without a political agenda.

These strikes make me feel quite uncomfortable in that they can make the recession worse, affecting productivity through travel difficulties and raw material supply, as well as cash-flow, so important to many businesses including especially, small businesses. It really shouldn’t be funny, but there is a comic absurdity in all this, at a time when even the TUC is forecasting that there will be 4 million unemployed within the next year or so.


The confrontation and posturing we see on both sides of these disputes between major employers and unions is certainly not the sort of behaviour we would want to see in small business, and indeed we do not see it very often. However, unfortunately management and workers can still take very entrenched positions, particularly over productivity and in respect of staff absence. It can happen in respect of pay too.

Fortunately the small business owner is in a much better position to do something about these problems and to put matters right. It involves taking a friendly approach which might be alien to the big employers and their workforce representatives. Being nice to someone is certainly never harmful. So, if there is a productivity problem we, our small business owner or SME director should say to the workers individually or together (it depends on circumstances) “I know that you are doing your best, but we really are not getting the results we expect. Do you have a suggestion as to how we could get through more work? Is there a problem you can identify and something we can change?” That way the staff will feel happy that they have been asked and feel more valued. We will be giving them some responsibility for their work and there may well be something the business could change to make the system better and get more work done. At the same time, the staff will feel more able to volunteer issues that concern them and give useful feedback without being asked.

In the case of staff absence, it is always best at the earliest stage to talk to the individual because there may be an area in which we can help. Again, the person will feel valued, and perhaps one could allow some flexibility on working hours if there is something which keeps the person away from work. Of course, common sense must prevail, but again we encourage collective responsibility. Even pay issues are best resolved by talking first, and individual incentives related to personal productivity can also encourage valuable feedback.

None of this is novel, but both small business employers and their staff can get into entrenched attitudes if they do not talk enough or at all. We have nothing to lose by being friendly and kind to those who work for us. I have always found that if our team members like us, they will respect us and try harder to please, which of course benefits them hugely, as well as our business.

© Jon Stow 2009

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