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    The popular philosopher, journalist, author and leadership consultant talks about the future of working practice in the City


    How would you describe work culture in the City of London pre-pandemic? Do you think this culture will re-emerge, or is it changed forever?

    The City is a heterogeneous place in some ways, but I do think there’s some truth in David Solomon’s – the CEO of Goldman Sachs – ideas about how big investment banks have a mentoring culture and part of what you learn is done by watching other people. It is the model of the apprentice joining and picking up good working practice by observing. So, if you were to join Morgan Stanley Mergers and Acquisitions, for example, you’d get some training, but much of what you’d learn would be by watching MDs and clients. Do you get that virtually? David Solomon thinks that’s difficult and so you need to be physically in the office. Speaking personally, I think there is a lot to be gained through office conversations, and particularly in those more informal moments as you leave a meeting or arrive or meet someone in the corridor or walk past somebody’s desk. So, will the working culture change as a result of the pandemic? I’d say it’s an open question, and the market will decide. Those companies that get that balance right between working remotely and in the office will win more clients. If I had to call it today, though, I’d say that the City will be less inclined to move towards virtual working than other professional services.

    How do you see work-life in the City evolving in the coming year as a result of the lifestyle changes individuals and businesses have experienced in the past year?

     Goldman Sachs is a client of mine, which is why I am particularly interested in their thoughts on this, and CEO David Solomon certainly thinks the younger generation has been impacted by being at home. This is not just to do with whether time has been spent in the office or not. I do think that the bars and recreational places that you congregate in after work are part of what drives innovation. The thinking is, for example, that Silicon Valley has largely beaten the Boston area of high-tech development because of the proliferation of what we call its third spaces. If home is the first space and the office is the second, then the third is the bar, the noodle joints, pubs and social clubs. In the City these exist too – places like The Ned, or indeed The Fortnum’s Bar and Restaurant at The Royal Exchange; these are the places where deals are done and conversations happen between companies and individuals. They are extremely important for the City. Look how quickly Zoom dinners and having a beer on Zoom were abandoned. Those recreational places in the City will thrive in the coming decade.

    What is the impact of working from home on young people?

    I have talked to a few companies about this, and it is a concern. A senior partner at one of the big four Deloitte-type businesses of this world told me that young people have really struggled with a great deal of loneliness. I know a lot of parents found lockdown frenetic, but many single people have been very lonely; they haven’t had the normal opportunities to engage. And younger people have also seen how their social skills have decayed. They need to come back into the office and interact with their colleagues, and with each other. As we get older, we take things like social skills for granted, but in your 20s you’re learning and you need to be with others to develop social expertise and competence successfully.

    How do people want to work going forwards? How do they want to structure their working day/week?

    My sense is that most people – particularly the younger ones – are keen to achieve a balance. Of course, some who previously embraced the work hard/play hard philosophy may have a different view of these things. But the question we are all asking ourselves is: if you have a human-centric organisation, what does that mean in a post-pandemic age? Many are looking at a working week of three or four days in the office and the rest at home, but clearly some businesses can cope with that structure better than others. I suspect we will see a lot of evolution of these ideas in the coming months. 

    Are business owners/leaders and workers aligned in what they want, or are there significant points of difference that will need ironing out in order to create a harmonious working environment for the future?

    In the City I can imagine a slight tension here, probably principally for generational reasons. Fundamentally, there are two things working in slightly opposite directions: clients want people to be available in the office on tap, but if a City business tries to secure that type of service for those clients, they might not be able to recruit the best talent, as some people may not want to work like that. I imagine that, for example, mergers and acquisitions may have a very different feel in this respect to private equity, where there may be key decision points over the year as opposed to a constant pipeline of activity.

    What are the benefits of hybrid working and the challenges that will need to be addressed?

    In terms of benefits, the biggest and obvious one is coming out of an unproductive commute – which can also be very uncomfortable and is one of the things that is often correlated with unhappiness. So, working from home some of the time could have a massive positive effect on those who have a difficult commute; and it also has good environmental consequences, which benefits us all. However, as we have discussed, there are also challenges to the hybrid model. How, for example, to ensure that everyone in a meeting has equal voice when some people are physically present and others are not? There is evidence that not being in the room can really influence your ability to participate effectively in meetings: the people who are not there have no peripheral vision and can’t see body language, so they are disadvantaged when it comes to understanding and interpreting what is really being said.

    What can businesses do to encourage workers back into the office? 

     For me, the thing that would make the biggest difference is a conducive office environment. So, for example, one professional services firm I work with is bending over backwards to make coming back into the office as seamless an experience as possible by organising networking events with all the bells and whistles. Ultimately, though, getting workers back into the office will be much easier for organisations that have a very well-articulated mission and purpose that the employees buy into, and don’t just think about themselves as being defined by a transactional relationship with their customers. Those businesses that have an ethos that is inclusive and diverse, where they listen to ideas, and where there is a compelling and clear mission and vision – these are places where people are more likely to want to come into an office to be part of something positive. There are leaders in the City who have begun to broaden the purpose of their organisations from being one purely of transaction to a more human conception of what they do. These businesses will be the ones that can attract talent and get that talent into work in a place of work.

    What makes for a happy and efficient work environment? 

     An environment which is inclusive is a much happier one – where people feel they have a contribution to make and it is valued, even when it may be challenged and disputed. Speaking personally, my father worked for the civil service, and because he had brown skin he was excluded from many social events with his colleagues. I can’t describe the attrition that it had on him over time. Businesses need to hire people because they are talented and make them feel that they are wanted and welcome. That’s just good practise and will lead to better results.

    How can trust be established and nurtured between employers and employees?

     Trust is very, very important. The obvious way to create it is to be honest with people, and though that might sound glib, it is true. If I were to voice a criticism of the City, it would be that it can be very political – for example, a lot of work is done to take credit for somebody’s work rather than doing something productive. The up or out, rank and yank, zero-sum game competition within businesses erodes any notion of trust. At Enron, people wouldn’t leave computers on in case colleagues stole information from each other. An organisation that competes with other organisations but is highly collaborative within itself is the ideal. It is clear that the practice of shafting colleagues internally that was the norm in some investment banks was a factor in the lead up to the financial crash of 2008. An organisation that is collaborative, where information is shared, will do better and thrive.

    Top tips for effective and productive communication between employers and employees as we navigate this period of change?

     The word is “authenticity”. People see through bullshit. Corporate communication can sound very like bullshit! Authenticity is difficult to do well – and honesty here is crucial. I would also love organisations to be a bit more long-term in their thinking. I appreciate this is difficult in listed companies that have shareholders who want results, but the short-term approach can be inefficient and counter-productive. I also think that businesses need to communicate more effectively internally. The big spend is nearly always on advertising to customers. But the principal here – that you need to say things often for it to sink in – is equally applicable to internal messaging. Tell your people what your vison and aims are and how well you are doing in delivering these, or not, and if the latter, what you need to do differently, and you will keep them engaged.

    How do you envision the City – in terms of the work culture and work-life balance – in five or 10 years’ time?

     I know a lot of people think we’re going to have a roaring ’20s equivalent, and of course, lots of us crave this. If something like this does happen then one good consequence will be the return of after-work social activity, which I consider to be very important for innovation, Realistically, I believe we will find an equilibrium over the next decade that keeps the best aspects of interaction, as this is part of what being human is all about, but cuts out things that have a negative impact on our working lives, like a miserable daily commute. If all goes well, we will be able to benefit from the advantages of virtual working while sustaining the incalculable benefits of physical human interaction.

    Matthew Syed is a popular philosopher, author, journalist and consultant. His clients include ITV, Microsoft and Vodafone. He writes a weekly column for
    The Sunday Times and hosts a podcast about influential ideas – Sideways – on Radio 4. His books explore human behaviour and include: Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice; Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance; You Are Awesome: Find Your Confidence and Dare to be Brilliant at (Almost) Anything; and Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking;

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