I’m sorry I made us fat – reflections on the government’s bizarre culture war on home workers  

It all started because I didn’t want to wear shoes. Now I’m seemingly being blamed – in part at least – for the nation’s economic downfall and obesity crisis.

When we started Hough Bellis nearly six years ago, we wanted to challenge conventional thinking around the way we worked. To remove the systems and traditions that made little sense in the modern world.

What If we could find a way to get rid of the nonsense working practices that locked people out of jobs (or made them unbearable) – and forced carers, and parents and people with health conditions to choose between the career they wanted and the life they needed?

Then we would have done some good.

From a personal perspective, there were two parts of working life I wanted to confine to Room 101:

  1. Wearing shoes – I have arthritis in my ankles. Shoes hurt my feet. I now have one pair that get dusted off for formal occasions (I still can’t put the team through the embarrassment of turning up to awards ceremonies in my Nike Air Max).
  2. The commute – I’d just had a baby. I wanted to see him grow up. I take him to school most mornings and pick him up most afternoons. I couldn’t have done it driving back and forth to an office in Manchester every day.

Back in 2016 we were vocal about our decision not to take an office and offering staff the flexibility to work where they want, when they want. It wasn’t the done thing at the time, but we knew it would bring loads of benefits and unlock the potential of huge parts of the workforce.

We blogged. We spoke at events about our approach. Plenty of folks lined up to point out we were wrong.

It took a global pandemic to prove we might be right. Fewer than one in ten now want to return to the office full-time according to the Office of National Statistics. Around half of office workers in the UK would rather resign than permanently return to an office building.

Yet, the Ministers and commentators seem to have put returning to the office at the centre of their culture war.

The Bank of England’s policy on home working was blamed for spiralling inflation, Jacob Rees-Mogg has been put in charge of getting us all back around the watercooler, while Boris Johnson seems to think the workplace revolution correlates directly with his cheese intake.

It feels remarkably interventionist for government, and a Conservative government at that, to be telling me how to run my shop.

It also feels like a bizarre put down for a cultural transformation that offers a genuine opportunity for levelling up in red wall communities, the flagship government priority.

So, with home working back in the national spotlight here’s our take on what we can expect from the future of work, and our learning from six years of offering staff freedom and flexibility.

  1. There’s a difference between flexible working and working from home

Flexible working doesn’t mean people being sat at home chained to their kitchen tables 9-5.  It doesn’t have to mean isolation for staff and it’s not the end of sharing ideas or ‘watercooler moments.’ It just requires a different approach.

It’s about giving people the freedom to work how they want, where they want, when they want. Sometimes that might mean working from home, others working from a co-working space or coffee shop.

We’ve held meetings on rooftops in Barcelona and in office blocks in Edinburgh.

It’s about allowing people to work in ways that best suit them and then bringing people together in new and interesting ways.

  1. Cultural reform is needed to unlock the benefits of flexible working

The average daily commute in 2018 was nearly 59 minutes (both ways combined). For those now having to commute to their home office, we’ve been gifted around a day of our lives back each month.

So, what do we do with that extra time? Well, most of us work. Some of us relax, or go to the gym, or help the children with their homework. This has got to be good for a nation that needs to be healthy and happy to be creative and productive.

We need to make it okay for people to have more flexibility in their working choices and give them more freedom over their time.

  1. New leadership and management styles are needed

Modern leadership means being the way you want the company to be. You need to be active in providing a positive culture with clear expectations. If we are less visible, then every interaction counts.

Creating a high trust culture is so important – as is acting swiftly when trust is broken.

We also need to learn to manage by results – setting aims and supporting staff to achieve them.

Those who like to manage by control, propped up by a big office machine, are unlikely to be fans of flexible working.

You have to work a bit harder at creating good working relationships, for example, and find creative ways to get a team buzz. But the flip side is that flexible working fosters creativity, independence and reliability.

We’re focused on what we want to get done (personally and professionally) – and when we do get to spend time together we really value it.

  1. Flexibility should be driven by culture, not cash

If the main driver allowing staff to work flexibly is to save a few quid on office space, then stop what you’re doing right now.

This is a cultural journey focused on improving the health, happiness and performance of your team, not a financial one.

Money that would ordinarily be spent on office rent should be reinvested in better kit, systems and activities that set the right culture.

  1. Working remotely won’t make you fat or lazy

Apparently, home working is impacting our calorie intake. Everyone who’s ever worked in an office knows there are mountains of holiday chocolates and special occasion treats, not to mention the birthday cakes. Lunch is often grabbed at the nearest corner shop.

Food is hastily eaten over a dirty keyboard before your next meeting. If you missed out on the last sandwich, there’s always the crisps and chocolate machine to help you out.

It needn’t be like this of course – lots of worthy people manage to pack a healthy salad before they start out for their early commute AND hold out until lunch time before they crack it open.

I’m no expert on healthy eating choice, and, frankly, neither is our Prime Minister, but surely it’s a lot easier to eat well if you have some influence over what’s in stock.

If Mr Johnson can’t concentrate and eats too much cheese while working from home, perhaps that says more about what goes on at his house than in ours.

  1. Old habits die hard

The old way was great for those who already had it good. It’s no wonder some are desperate to rush back to it.

Newspaper owners who miss their daily sales to commuters and property owners who shudder at the thought of office rents reducing will understandably resist change. It’s also understandable that people who live in crowded or unfit homes may be happy to spend time in the office.

That’s the point – flexible working gives you a choice. We’re on the threshold of something new and exciting. That’s progress. Let’s embrace it.

Bobbie Hough