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‘Survival of those who adapt to change’ – Stefan Stern

‘Survival of those who adapt to change’ – Stefan Stern

"Many won’t like it. They’ll be surviving, coping, missing their colleagues. They may not have believed you six months ago had you told them that they’d really miss this [the office] one day. We mustn’t underestimate what a shock working from home will have been to many…"

We caught up with former FT management columnist and visiting professor at the Cass Business School, Stefan Stern. Stefan is the author of ‘Myths of management: what people get wrong about being the boss’ and ‘How to be a better leader’.

It isn't the end of the office

SS: The bottom line for any commercial operation is about surviving and sustainability. It is tempting to think about major cost savings both in terms of headcount and real estate. But organisations shouldn’t be too hasty on either of these two fronts as we don’t quite know where we’ll be in six to nine months’ time. While some savings might be appropriate now, the danger is cutting too deep. We saw that with the dotcom boom and bust back in 2002, when firms trimmed very heavily and then had to re-recruit very fast as they weren’t able to cope with the recovering economy. We still have months of uncertainty, which is another reason for not selling office space. As an employee you want to identify with a business, you’re going to want to  go somewhere called work, so it’s a bit hasty to just abandon offices forever!

Reaching a state of flexibility

SS: The bigger question is about imagining the future. This is a living experiment, some things will work and some won’t so we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. We need to keep optionality and not commit to big decisive moves now, but build flexibility and recognise it is a big bumpy change and that we’re learning a lot. The trick will be to blend in some of new stuff and adapt, it’s exciting that we finally have something that really is flexible. We’ve been talking about flexible working for a decade but it has never been embedded properly or been really widespread enough, there have just been pockets of it. As working mothers will tell you, there’s a very patchy record on flexibility. Maybe finally now we can be more honest and effective. That’s the big plus.  

Having the right blend 

SS: Let’s not jettison everything. Not everything until Feb 2020 was bad. Yes, there was too much business travel, too much unnecessary commuting, but that doesn’t mean that the office was a dreadful mistake, that getting together was inefficient or an indulgence. The big challenge is making the blend of approaches work for your organisation, and those that are better at that will transform their working environment and potentially their performance. That’s quite exciting. So not everything in the new world of work is better, some things about old world worked well. Adaptation is the thing, it’s not the survival of the fittest in the Darwinian sense but survival of those who adapt to change. And that’s a good thing, a necessary adaptation to change is unavoidable.

Applying common sense 

SS: I hope that the new norm is a mature adult to adult agreement between people about what works best for both sides mutually, according to individual, business and team needs. The legislation in the UK gives you the right to request flexible working but there is no obligation for an employer to grant it. There ought to be a shift in focus so that we should be having that conversation anyway, like we used to say is this meeting really necessary so we should be saying is this commute really necessary on this occasion for example. Let's agree what the best split is between home and office working. Both extremes are wrong, we need a vigorous enthusiastic agreement about what works best and then finally we will have something akin to real flexibility, which we’ve never had. During all my working life we’ve talked about it, it’s happened a bit but it has never really landed properly.

Finding time for each individual

SS: We should be adapting as the world, markets and customers change but equally we mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking that the new is good and the old bad. Part of the new way of working for example was that we didn’t need middle managers – 'delayering' – because technology would allow accountability for bigger teams. But that wasn’t necessarily a great idea given how flaky customer service call centres have been for example. Without supervisory management you leave people isolated and without a manager nearby things go wrong, and we’ve seen that with failures in customer service. People mustn’t feel abandoned, it’s important for managers to carve out time for their people, which is another reason why teams can’t be too big as they can’t pay attention to too many individuals.

We hope you enjoyed it - part 2 will be published next week.  

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