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A Response To Lord Sugar’s Rejection Of Work From Home Culture

Business magnate and TV Personality Lord Alan Sugar recently shared his thoughts in The Mail about working from home. We went through some of his main points and shared why we believe his approach sums up what is so badly lacking at some of the highest levels of business; flexibility and empathetic leadership.

Business magnate and TV Personality Lord Alan Sugar recently shared his thoughts in The Mail about working from home and how he believes it is damaging the economy and creating a generation of ‘entitled’ and ‘lazy’ workers.

We went through some of his main points and shared why we believe he is wrong about working from home and how his approach sums up what is so badly lacking at some of the highest levels of business; flexibility and empathetic leadership.

Let’s examine some of the key threads that were discussed by a man who’s own property investment company recently paid him a £390M dividend…

Lord Sugar says:

However, the pandemic has unleashed a workshy, entitled culture in which people demand — and are allowed — to work from home. This trend is bad news for business, for employees — and for the sandwich shops, cafes and taxi drivers who rely on people going into the office. I would never have built my business empire if I had been working from home half the week because creativity thrives in company — the company of your colleagues that is, not your cat.

Alan SugarBusiness Magnate

Allowing freedom of movement

Firstly, employees being able to work from home is what saved many businesses during the pandemic. Employees worked during this time whilst simultaneously being isolated in their homes in enforced lockdowns, balancing parenting and home schooling duties and also working full time. 

To say that people were workshy, during the pandemic especially, lacks a basis in reality. 

Lord Sugar then moves on to the sandwich shops, taxi drivers and businesses that surround office blocks now being under threat because of more people working remotely. 

The assumption is he is talking about central London, or other major cities. But this completely ignores the fact that the move to hybrid working and working from home has meant many people have left big, increasingly unaffordable cities like London and moved to other towns across the UK. The reports are that many of the economies in these towns are now thriving as a result of this ripple effect. For example, Stoke is now the UK’s third biggest growth area and has even been dubbed ‘Silicon Stoke’ because of its potential as a flexible working tech hub. 

Gaby Hinsliff from The Guardian says  “What sucks the life from smaller towns is young people moving away for better jobs. But would more choose to stay close to their roots, in places where houses are still cheap and they have family nearby to help with the kids, if remote working for at least part of the week let them tap into big-city opportunities without having to up sticks? More home working means less commuting, putting money back into hard-pressed pockets; it breathes life back into struggling local high streets too, drawing new people in.”

Isn’t this what ‘Levelling-Up’ is meant to be about? The world doesn’t (or shouldn’t) revolve around major cities like London. 

Lord Sugar also talks about more creativity occurring ‘in the company of colleagues’, but this is not necessarily true either. 

Creativity is not something that can be forced in any particular environment. For example, it is not necessarily going to be easier for me to write an article or calculate financial reports on a spreadsheet in an office surrounded by colleagues than it would be at home. 

Creativity comes when people have space and are rested and in good mental health. All of which is more likely to occur when people have more flexibility in their job.

Lord Sugar goes on to say:

“For younger people especially interaction is vital — you learn from observing your colleagues, listening to how they talk to customers, copying the methods of those who work effectively — and learning from the mistakes of those who don’t. You can’t get this from any training course.”

Training does not necessarily need to occur in person for it to be successful. 

When Lord Sugar talks about ‘interaction’ and ‘more creativity’ in the office I think he may be saying that he believes more effective collaboration occurs in person. 

Lord Sugar mentions a study by Microsoft from December 2019 to June 2020 that supposedly found that WFH reduces creativity, communication and teamwork.

He says working from home “made workers ‘more siloed in how they communicate’, and it was harder to acquire and share information across different departments, which could have implications for a company’s ‘productivity and innovation’.”

The Microsoft study (which he doesn’t link to) covers a very small window that spans 3 months pre-lockdown and 3 to 4 months of peak pandemic panic – one of the most stressful and uncertain periods of life in modern history. Of course productivity was going to suffer during these times. 

There were initial teething problems when companies moved to remote working during the pandemic and had to immediately implement and train staff on completely new processes and communication tools with no notice or opportunity for planning. But if you skip to January of this year, collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams are absolutely thriving with more than 270 million monthly active users across the globe. 

That’s a lot of people collaborating.

The key is having communication systems in place that connect staff. If that is done correctly there is no reason why staff can’t learn and interact successfully. 

The fact is people learn in different ways, being able to learn at your own pace and at your own speed of understanding is more likely to result in greater knowledge retention and improved memory performance. Research conducted by Jonathan G. Tullis and Aaron S. Benjamin found that self-paced learners outperform those who spend precisely the same amount of time learning the same content. 

Lord Sugar’s approach to in-office training and returning to the office in general lacks inclusivity. 

What about people with disabilities who may struggle to get into the office physically, why shouldn’t they be able to learn at home? What about the greater opportunities they have to engage with work and build their career now they don’t have the hurdle of getting into the office every day to overcome?

Then there’s women who’ve had children, who are leaving their jobs in droves because of a lack of flexibility from employers. Are we simply going to discard all those years of valuable experience and skills because they want to work from home a few days a week?

Watercooler Moments

Lord Sugar also mentions the so-called ‘watercooler moment’ as being a driver of innovation, he says: 

“It’s the spontaneous interactions that occur as you’re passing someone’s desk, or the throwaway remarks made to colleagues sitting nearby, that can spark the best ideas, solve problems, and establish rapport. No one sets up a Zoom meeting just to chat.”

There is no evidence to suggest that more innovation happens in person e.g at the water cooler (when people are meant to be taking a break, not innovating for their company) than occur remotely and asynchronously across chat and communication platforms such as Workplace from Meta, Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Slack. In fact, it could be argued that if anything, the pandemic has accelerated innovation within companies because of the mass adoption of tools to facilitate remote working which allow staff to have greater flexibility, spend less time travelling to offices or more easily communicate and collaborate with their peers – no matter where they are based. 

Calling those who work from home ‘lazy’ and ‘entitled’

Perhaps Lord Sugar’s most controversial views come towards the end of his piece, when he goes on to call those who work from home ‘lazy’ and ‘entitled’ and paints a picture that they are not to be trusted.

“Without their boss or colleagues keeping an eye on them, they can get away with spending time online shopping, or logging on in the morning then going back to bed, or watching the cricket. It’s naïve to expect that everyone works as hard when no one is looking.”

It’s attitudes like this that were likely a contributing factor to people leaving their jobs in The Great Resignation. 

It illustrates a complete lack of empathy and trust in staff which dooms the relationship from the start. Treating staff like children and micro-managing them as if they are all somehow deviant and unable to do their jobs properly unless supervised, is a pretty shocking view for someone with all his years and success in business. 

It also shows a complete lack of understanding in measuring productivity in terms of quality output rather than time spent sat in an office chair. 

In the same piece, Lord Sugar says ‘people are the lifeblood of business’.

Yes they are, and this is no way to treat them. Does Lord Sugar really expect that treating people like this will get the best out of them?

Generational differences

He then moves on to the economy and suggests that our parents’ generation have a stronger work ethic. 

He says: “With the economic news as grim as it is — inflation soaring, growth stalling and interest rates going through the roof — we need everyone to pull together and put their shoulders to the wheel, working as a team not in individual bubbles.” 

“Did your mother work from home? Did your father or grandfather work from home? No, of course not, so why should you?”

Using the Cost Of Living Crisis and inflation as a reason to come into the office, again, illustrates a complete lack of empathy for people who are actually feeling the effects of the Cost Of Living Crisis. Fuel costs and energy costs have soared by more than 54% in some cases, so with this in mind, how can you expect workers to pay out from their own pocket to get the fuel to get their car into work or to pay the very high travel costs that the UK is known for, when they have been doing the same job from home for the past 2 years?

Asking to work from home, particularly in this climate, is not “entitled”. For many it’s an economic necessity. There has been a shift and change in outlook and behaviour towards work brought about by the pandemic; instead of kicking and screaming about it and trying to rewind, we need to learn to work more efficiently and apply more empathy. Businesses and business leaders can no longer dictate to their staff, a recent report from the BBC shows that job vacancies outpace unemployment for the first time since records began

In other words, businesses need to retain the high performing staff they have and making demands on employees at this time is a dangerous game. Acceptance and a new approach is needed, not harking back to archaic ideas about ‘what our parents did’. 

Our parents didn’t live through a pandemic, many had ‘jobs for life’ with generous company pensions and could buy a house for £40,000 which is now worth 10 times that amount. We are faced with extortionate rents for cramped rooms in major cities which we will likely never own, wages that have not increased with inflation, and crippling costs for energy, food and other essentials which erode any disposable income. 

It has nothing to do with entitlement, it’s just reality. 

Lord Sugar’s approach is rigid, archaic and narrow in its viewpoint. He doesn’t seem able to see objectively the positives that remote working has brought about. Or indeed, that the climate of business is not the same as it was a generation ago.

Maybe his views have less to do with the facts, and more to do with his office portfolio ‘suffering’ as staff work from home and companies redirect their budgets to more effective activities than a fancy office and London postal code they can put on their letter heading. 

The landscape of business has evolved. 

It’s time that the views of business leaders evolved with it.

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