It turns out that when it comes to the raging debate about the future of work, the wise Finance Director should keep a copy of a dictionary of a language often described as “dead” on their person. They should probably also invest in body armour and a sturdy tin hat. For if all the early evidence is any indicator, much of the tension between employer and employee in the years to come will be less about what work is done at which level of renumeration but where that work is conducted. This discussion has had a distinctly rocky start because of a fundamental misunderstanding that the term “hybrid working” and the term “flexible working” are essentially one and the same. They are not.
Hence the value of acquiring that dictionary. Hybrid comes from the Latin hybrida. It means, literally, “the offspring of a tame cow and a wild boar”. Its origins are in cross-breeding either of animals or plants and by later extension to human beings and their activities. It is about the mixing of two different systems which in most ordinary circumstances would be considered to be separate.
The word flexible is very different. It comes from the Latin flectere meaning “to bend” or flexibilis which translates as “that may be bent, pliant, yielding”. Interestingly, while in the original Latin it was considered to be a rather positive word, a virtuous quality, that was less true when it evolved into old French where it was taken to mean “capable of being mentally or spiritually pliant”, a turn of phrase which can be viewed as akin to being weak or unprincipled. Whoever would have thought that Lord Sugar’s robust views on everyone returning to the office now had such a history to them?
Once it becomes clear that hybrid and flexible are very different words then the trouble that certain chief executives and corporations have brought upon themselves becomes more understandable. Exhibit A is this regard is Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, who has become a poster child for insensitivity.
Mr Cook acquired this unwanted accolade by the system and the manner in which he announced that Apple’s employees would, in a phased fashion, move back to their desks in a formula that meant that they would all work from the office on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays and all operate from somewhere else (presumably their homes) on Wednesdays and Fridays. This was accompanied by a letter to Apple employees setting this new blueprint out as “a long-awaited milestone” but conceding that for some this “may be an unsettling change” and that “we are deeply committed to giving you the support and flexibility that you need in this next phase.”
To state that this missive was not received with universal rapture would be a serious understatement. The reasons for that discontent were many and varied but have some common themes to them.
First, the proposed new format, while certainly hybrid, was clearly not flexible. All employees were being compelled to follow one fixed formula. To that extent it was no different to being told to work in the office from Monday to Friday but take Saturday and Sunday off for leisure (also hybrid). It rendered Mr Cook’s warm words about “support and flexibility that you need” rather redundant.
Second, the system proposed – in on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, out on Wednesday and Friday – can surely only have been one that was selected at random by a particularly ancient Apple computer. If you are going to be hybrid rather than flexible then you could at least minimise inconvenience. It would surely be better to make Monday to Wednesday, Tuesday to Thursday, or Wednesday to Friday the norm than the actual timetable that was announced to employees.
Finally, it was widely pointed out that there was an element of hypocrisy in this equation. Apple has made a fortune over the past two years selling the materials required so that employees in other companies can work remotely in as smooth a fashion as possible. Yet it is now proposing to limit that option for its own staff.
So, Mr Cook is no longer the apple of many of his employees’ eyes. His rivals in the big-tech space have gleefully exploited his discomfort. Google have indicated that they too would like a three day in/two day out split but are willing to let their staff determine which days of the week work best for them (which is still a hybrid, rather than truly flexible, arrangement but less burdensome). Microsoft have suggested that they will reach an accord with employees on a case-by-case basis (which is a potentially genuinely flexible offer) while Twitter have declared that they would be willing to allow those employees who aspire to do so to work remotely “forever” (an opportunity that a very large percentage of them may choose to do if and when Elon Musk gets his hands on the steering wheel).
Why should any of this matter to anyone at a senior level of a company of considerably smaller size in this country? Because the elephant trap into which Mr Cook stumbled exists whether a business has 10 employees, 100 employees or 100,000 people on the payroll. The crass company letter, that smacks as if it must have been written by someone who started their career crafting the scripts for an “I speak your weight” machine, can be sent out by those at the helm of the smallest of start-ups as well as those at the top of the largest of corporate empires. And regardless of how it happens, if a firestorm is ignited it will be the poor old FD who is engulfed even if they had nothing to do with it.
It would be shrewd, therefore, to try to avoid unnecessary conflict. FDs should be alert to the fact that hybrid working and flexible working are not two sides of the same coin. If it has to be a structure of hybrid working then (a) do not pretend this is flexible working in its full sense, (b) engage in some consultation as to what version of hybrid working would be least challenging for employees and explain why universal flexibility cannot be offered and (c) even in those circumstances have the capacity to make exceptions when there is a respectable argument that more flexibility is needed. It is always worth being open-minded about whether absolute flexibility could be accommodated. If these rules are followed, then the chances of a full-scale revolt by the entire staff hopefully will be minimized as well as all of the potential PR issues .
This is a matter of self-interest as well as solid corporate citizenship. There is a war for talent out there. Do not shoot yourself in both feet! Neither should you deceive yourself that you can avoid the flexibility issue in your company. On this one, as Julius Caesar put it, alea incta est (the die is cast).