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Ella Overshott

Pecan Partnership

Director

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Is Lord Alan Sugar right about working from home?

As the latest series of The Apprentice kicks off, Sir Alan Sugar is making the headlines (again) for his comments about remote workers. His recent statement that he will not be recruiting people who want to work from home will chime with the groundswell of CEOs calling employees back to the office – does he have a point?
Golden Retriever lying on bed

In his recent interview on BBC Breakfast to launch the latest series of The Apprentice, Sir Alan Sugar was clear that his team would be adhering to a strict “nobody who wants to work from home” recruitment policy.

“I understand why [remote working] happened during Covid, but I’m totally against it, quite frankly,” he explained. “I think it is bad for morale, bad for learning. I know I learn from being with other people, in an office, and you don’t learn sitting at home in your pyjamas in front of a Mac.” Cue plentiful eye-rolling at this old-fashioned view from a Traditionalist, especially as he was conducting the interview via Zoom (though presumably not in his pyjamas). 

His comments should come as no surprise. In 2023 he made headlines for accusing people of “exploiting the work from home trend”, and he has been vocal about his position from as early as 2020, stating on This Morning that people working from home were “becoming complacent”. It should be noted that Sir Alan has a personal stake in a mass return to the office, given his property investment group Amshold made a £29m loss in 2023 compared with a £15.2m pre-tax in 2022.

The return to office (RTO) trend

With The Unispace Global Insights 2023 study reporting that 72% of companies are mandating office returns, does he have a point? Has the pendulum got stuck too far in favour of wellbeing at the expense of productivity and performance?

After all, we know that hybrid working has had a negative impact on employees’ connection to organisation purpose and organisational culture. Leaders and managers are finding it more challenging to build collaboration, creativity and communication when their teams are working remotely. 

In my opinion, there are two unhelpful assumptions behind the office vs remote working debate that are polarising perspectives and getting in the way of making progress that will deliver better outcomes for employers and their employees. 

1. It’s assumed we choose ‘all or nothing’ 

The first assumption is that the RTO edict is a command to have everyone back in the office full time and that hybrid working means employees having full autonomy to choose when and where to work.

Neither are true. In most cases CEOs are making it a requirement to be in the office 2 or 3 days a week, not every day, so they are simply introducing a more regular, structured approach to hybrid. And in reality very few employees have full autonomy about when and where they work, with only about 12% of employees working entirely remotely according to CIPD research

Much more concerning is the ‘top down’ nature of these RTO edicts and the staggering lack of curiosity as to whether hybrid working is actually the cause of the business’s poor performance. Imposing changes on employees with no engagement in the ‘why’ or ‘how’ has never been successful and tends to lead to lower productivity and higher turnover, so a self-defeating approach. 

2. Wellbeing versus productivity – you can’t have both

The second assumption is that wellbeing and productivity are a binary choice, that you can only have one or the other, when we have known for years that they are symbiotic.

Meaningful work is good for the soul, it gives us a sense of purpose and boosts self-esteem. Good physical and mental health helps us stay productive over the long-term, keeps our minds agile and prevents burnout.  

We need to drop these black and white assumptions if we are to leverage the benefits of hybrid working and overcome the challenges.  

The reality? Poor performance equates to poor people management

Our fixation with work location is in danger of masking the real cause of poor performance and that’s poor people management. As Gallup’s research has found, no location can *fix* poor management. Ultimately creating a high-performing culture still comes back to good management and good leadership. Yes, hybrid working presents some new challenges but the under-pinning principles are the same.

There is an abundance of great practice to learn from in progressive organisations, for example:

  • Co-creating flexible working principles appropriate for the type of organisation and the outcomes they need to achieve 
  • New ways of working to build relationships, collaboration and creativity such as hackathons, reverse mentoring, inclusive meetings and commute-worthy office events
  • Strengthening people leadership capability to set clear performance outcomes, build trust, have difficult conversations and engage people in change 

The future IS flexible

Like it or not we’re on a train towards more flexible working. With eighty-three percent of organisations already adopting hybrid working and upcoming changes to UK law, demand will only increase. And this demand is not just about working location but about other types of flexibility such as compressed hours, 4-day weeks, career breaks and job-sharing. 

Instead of resisting it, Sir Alan would do well to get curious and learn how it can be done – whether he chooses to go into the office to learn or to Zoom-in from home. Evidence to date suggests the benefits for him and his organisation would far out-way the drawbacks. 

 

Author Profile Picture
Ella Overshott

Director

Read more from Ella Overshott
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