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You Selfish Hermits

You Selfish Hermits

Home-working and mid-morning dog walks don’t fit healthy company culture, especially in the industrial sector, says David Ayling.

Weld spatter filled the room.

Before Walt noticed, the corner of his sofa had started to smolder. Luckily, the smell of burning fabric caught his attention. Walt downed tools, jumped over the bridge crane girder, narrowly avoiding Mister the cat, and went to the kitchen to damp a towel to douse the area. Accident averted. Just.

Home-working isn’t for everyone, as Mister the cat will testify.

Next-door, Yasemine was having problems of her own this Wednesday morning. A precast concrete section she was lifting with a tower crane, erected in her back yard, had swung around and ripped a neighbor’s summerhouse roof clean off. Inside, Jon, an accountant, was furious. The damage can be repaired but he was just lining up the perfect shot of his dog, Randy, on his lap as he completed another Excel document. The steaming mug of coffee next to him looked great in the Instagram filter too.

“Randy doesn’t look too impressed with the balance sheet,” Jon’s caption was going to be.

This wasn’t the first time in the last year that Walt the welder and Yasemine the crane operator had experienced difficulties operating hulking, hazardous, industrial equipment from their homes. Jon had complained about the noise before and some of his new social media followers had even commented on the background whirring, not only from his immediate neighbors but Larry, a miner, had been tunneling underground for months, having been sent home from work when the pandemic hit.

Of course, this chaotic, farcical scene has been conjured up by my overactive imagination. Perhaps it’d make a good cartoon in a newspaper. Imagine Jon’s face! But there’s a serious point here in that the enduring message from governments to “work at home” is based on the ludicrous assumption that we are all able, and happy, to.

Ok, they add “if you can” to their messages, but it remains pointless and clueless sloganeering. It’s alright for people like Jon; they can continue to do their jobs from the comfort of home. For Walt and Yasemine, it’s impossible.

Also spare a thought for those gregarious types that thrive on breakfast meetings, networking lunches, water-cooler chats and after-work drinks. So mentally challenging have they found the pandemic era, that many have become withdrawn and reclusive. How dare these authorities! Stick us in the same water, ok, but don’t imply we’re in the same boat.

Road rage

Reality is, for many people, the trudge to a construction site or early start on the factory floor has been a constant. Workshops, warehouses, distribution centers, factories, worksites, and so on have operated at full capacity. Masks have been worn, sanitizers issued and productivity demands made as they always were. For delivery drivers, traffic might have been lighter last summer, but their miles have gone up and up. Pandemic journeys have altogether been varied. For some it’s been business as usual, for others a kind of relaxed utopia, and then there are those that have found it a mentally disintegrating, crushing nightmare.

As media and politicians talk about a return to normality, air time and column inches are being given to businesses and others that are campaigning for a flexible future. We’ve been productive at home, so let us stay there, they say. Call rates have gone up so let’s not distract workers with their fellow workers’ company, CEOs add. It’s another pandemic in the waiting, one that could have far worse consequences than the virus. We’ve got to respond by reiterating the importance of company culture, society, the economy, and mental health.

Welders, engineers and others have been hard at work throughout the pandemic.

We’ve worked so hard to champion vocational careers and apprenticeships. At last, more schools are widening their eyes and those of their students by exposing them to content about alternatives to academic colleges and universities. We’ve seen more young people and women entering sectors like the lifting industry. It’s been great in recent years to walk the aisles of a trade show and bump into people that aren’t an aging white male. Yet, there seems to be a desire to adopt a new way of life that throws all of this into jeopardy.

Think about how hard it has been to attract people, like Walt, into the welding profession. Now, not only are we making these trades work harder than ever, even during a pandemic, we’re also giving white-collar academics, marketers and financiers the opportunity to work from their spare bedrooms. Get dirty and commute to a factory or construction site five (seven) days a week, or enjoy a more flexible life in front of Netflix, crunching numbers or writing copy. Hmm.

Look, I’m not saying people that’ve worked from home haven’t been productive. I’ve known some brilliant, office-based individuals in my time that I’d trust to do their best work from their own houses, if required. Actually, the worry I’d have about some is that they would plough on into the night-time hours without the end of a workplace day to stop them. I don’t doubt that call rates have soared at some banks and that people have felt more refreshed and relaxed about life having been able to walk their dogs after morning coffee.

But is that more important than company culture and its wider economic, societal advantages?

Is it even sustainable?

Will at-home productivity rates go down when people have more distractions?

No, no, yes, I reckon.

Industry’s crossroads

This is a particularly important junction in the industrial space where we’ve got people like Walt, Yasemine, Jon and Larry all at the same company. I was talking to an employee at a U.S. heavy manufacturing business (not in the lifting sector) recently. It was clear that his company had managed the situation poorly when the office workers were sent home and the factory floor guys and gals, the most important people at the firm, were told to come to work as always.

Imagine washing grease off your hands to throw a quick sandwich down and check your social media feeds, and you see a working-at-home colleague checking in on Facebook at the park. Then you scroll down and the head of marketing has posted a photo of their coffee mug and a plate of cookies beside their laptop on a back yard table.

At some companies, the situation has driven a divide between teams already, I’m sure. Those cracks have been widened as emails have come round with surveys along the lines of:

Do you want to return to the office full-time?

Never return unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Adopt a flexible home versus office approach.

I know what email I’d be sending if I still ran a manufacturing organization:

WE CAN’T WAIT TO GET EVERYONE BACK IN THE OFFICE EVERY DAY SO WE CAN CONTINUE TO INSPIRE EACH OTHER TO HIT OUR COLLECTIVE GOALS AND GROW TOGETHER.

And it wouldn’t be the first time staff had heard from me for a while. I’d have been in regular communication with all workers, making sure that we maintained that water-cooler / coffee machine connectivity, whereby I knew what people were thinking and feeling despite not seeing them face-to-face.

I would also have been gently suggesting that no matter how comfortable that sofa is, the company needs a person’s infectious energy and enthusiasm in the workplace as often as possible. Where home-working has delivered undoubted health and productivity issues, I’d be looking at the reasons for that and what can be done to sprinkle some of that positivity in the place of work.

Empty chairs at empty tables

The lack of sustainability of this remote working culture is best demonstrated when you walk around any major CBD or city that has endured lockdown. A Starbucks has closed down on one side of the street, a restaurant remains shut on the other. All around there is a ghostly quiet where commuters and workers would once walk to their offices, stopping for coffees and snacks along the way. Restauranteurs stand in their doorways, yearning for the return of customers that used to eat and drink socially and over business meetings. Vendors of all kinds are operating on scraps. It’s sad. And it can’t continue. Imagine life with no urban hubbub.

Imagine what will happen to our CBDs and cities if nobody returns

The extent to which company culture has been retained during the pandemic, or the speed at which it will return, largely depends on how healthy it was beforehand. A factory foreperson and chief marketing officer that worked well together 18 months ago, whose teams regularly ate lunch at the same table, would probably have kept in touch despite not being in the same building. Further, they’ve likely already socialized as lockdowns were lifted.

Conversely, at companies where machine shop engineers scoffed at the easy life upstairs, or employees in snappy suits snarled at their grubby co-workers in the workshop, the pandemic has probably caused irreparable damage.

Honestly, unless a company is 100% white-collar, office-based, I don’t see how culture and productivity in the long-term can be maintained by persistent home, flexible or remote working—or whatever you choose to call it. Bars, restaurants, hotels, and retailers can’t survive on a tiny percentage of normal custom either. Eventually, the economic wheel will stop turning and those leisurely strolls around middle-class enclaves won’t be so comfortable. You wait and see. This emergency action plan can’t be allowed to become a way of life. Trades will be confronted by the biggest recruitment challenge we’ve ever faced and aging workforces will lead to the death—yes, death—of industries.

Get off your sofas, and your asses. Our future depends on it.

 

David Ayling is president at FAD Equipment Store

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