When the comic and film-maker Carl Reiner died at the end of June, there was another chance to reflect on the extraordinary team of writers who worked on Sid Caesar’s television shows in the 1950s. Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart, as well as Reiner, all showed up daily to generate Laughter on the 23rd Floor, as Simon’s subsequent play, based on that time, would be called.
This was no ordinary workplace. “It was very much like going to work every day of the week inside a Marx brothers movie,” Gelbart once said. Simon described the experience like this: “I went home to watch the shows and I laughed and laughed and my wife says, ‘That’s your joke, isn’t it?’ And I said, ‘I dunno’. We never knew. They all came so fast.”
This may not sound like any of the Zoom meetings you have attended recently. While it is true that new technology has made all kinds of remote (or “virtual”) working possible and it is impressive how well so many businesses and organisations have kept their respective shows on the road, the laptop screen is a poor substitute for real-life interactions with other human beings who are physically present.
A key element in the success of Sid Caesar’s writers’ room was that it was a real room with people in it. The exchanges were dynamic. They had vitality. Not only this, but all the non-verbal cues – shrugs, sighs, frowns, grimaces, laughs – could be picked up at once. Is there any great comedy being written right now via Zoom? I doubt it.
But wait a minute. Many employers do not seem to be in a hurry to get people to turn up to work again. Workplaces have become virtual, workforces have been relocated to their own homes. It has been good for flexibility, for the environment and, mostly, for family life. However, businesses and organisations have been hollowed out.
The financial implications of this look attractive to business leaders. Expensive floor space can be vacated. Travel budgets can be cut. It has become a cliche to observe that trends that might have taken another decade or more to play out have been crunched together in the past few months.
Employers may convince themselves that this is, at the very least, a cost-free transition. The managing director of the giant law firm Dentons said that not only had there been no fall in productivity but also no drop in service quality since the lockdown began (although to be certain of this second claim it would be good to have it confirmed by clients).
Professional service firms, in particular, should be wary of marking their own homework. The biggest accountancy firms were loudly ticked off last week for their “unacceptable” performance by the Financial Reporting Council. Will auditors find it easy to raise their standards when everyone is working remotely? I doubt that, too.
It is a rough time for business and the immediate goal is just to survive. Where revenue has fallen dramatically, jobs are going to go. However, the mistake that employers may be tempted to make is to regard the current way of working as preferable, as well as cost-effective.
Work is not just about output and businesses are more than just a set of financial results. They are also a set of relationships, a community in fact, and part of a wider system (as the current woes faced by restaurants, bars and coffee chains confirm). To be an employer – a good one, anyway – means recognising bigger responsibilities and aiming for bigger and more meaningful goals.
Good employers are interested in their people’s development. No worker, especially younger ones, will learn very much while cut off from everyone else, tapping away at their computer in their bedroom for months on end. Teams need to meet up and work together at least some of the time and, occasionally, for much of the time.
Virtual working is being oversold. Look at what has been happening with inadequate customer service in the past few months (as this newspaper reported recently). No wonder call centre staff feel unsupported and disempowered as they try to solve problems remotely, with no managers on hand to help out. Instant messaging systems are no replacement for an experienced colleague sitting a few feet away.
We might have known that Facebook and its charmless boss, Mark Zuckerberg, would push the “business logic” of this moment to the limit. He announced earlier this summer that not only would Facebook seek to get up to half its workforce to work from home but he also implied that those who had moved to more affordable places to live could expect to experience a pay cut. However, where employees choose to live while meeting their employer’s requirements is none of their employer’s business and should clearly not have any implications for their pay.
On Friday, the prime minister said that from 1 August employers will have the scope to request that more people return to work. Both bosses and workers are nervous about this and rightly so. The chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said last week that there was “absolutely no reason” to change the current guidance on working from home. Employers have a duty of care towards their staff. They must provide a safe working environment. If they genuinely don’t feel they can at the moment, then the great working from home experiment must continue.
However, online work and life are an inferior version of the real thing. We can see this daily on social media platforms where discussions are more like “a piano player trying to convey a symphony with only one note”, as Elizabeth Oldfield, director of the Theos thinktank, wrote in a blog last week.
We may, sadly, be nowhere near the end of the Covid-19 crisis but, when the danger has passed, I think many of us will want to spend quite a bit more time in the office.
• Stefan Stern is co-author of Myths of Management and the former director of the High Pay Centre