Last week’s Weekend Herald published a short article that highlighted the extent to which we are still grappling with life after Covid-19.

The headline read, “Students win fight not to attend uni in person”. It said the Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association had won the right for students not to attend lectures in person, but to watch recordings instead.

According to the article, part of the argument revolved around ensuring easy access to lectures for disabled students.

I get that. And it’s important. But that opportunity was already being provided for disabled students. So it appears the disabled-student argument was used primarily to get able-bodied students off the hook of attending lectures.

The students’ association case also cited factors such as students having part-time jobs and cost-of-living pressures affecting their ability to attend lectures in person.

Give me a break!

Part-time jobs and cost-of-living pressures have been a fact of student life for as long as student life has existed. These are the very burdens that, once carried, help equip our young people for the stresses of modern-day life after their studies are completed.

I’m all for making it easy for people to get an education. But I fear we’re missing a few things here.

In particular, the benefits of attending university are not limited to what is learned during lectures. For many students, a part of the university experience includes the opportunity to live in a new town, to experience different surroundings and meet new people. The chance to move away from parents and stand on your own two feet provides an added set of lessons for many young people. It’s called growing up.

Being forced to meet new people and develop new relationships while outside your comfort zone are critical skills that don’t get developed while living at home and going to the neighbourhood high school where you’ve known everyone for five years or more. They’re also critical skills for life. In many cases, the university experience is the first time we are forced to encounter such experiences and develop such skills.

“Part-time jobs and cost-of-living pressures have been a fact of student life for as long as student life has existed.”

The concern is that this issue has arisen at a time when employers are still struggling to get their people back to work. The Covid lockdowns forced organisations to quickly build the capacity for their people to work from home. Now, many people are resistant to returning to the office.

I’m seeing plenty of companies struggling to get their people back to work. Employers are seeing things the employees don’t want to see, including the dilution of workplace relationships, staff engagement scores decreasing and staff turnover increasing. For every story about improved productivity as a result of remote working, there is at least one other about productivity levels subsiding.

And why wouldn’t productivity decline? As attractive as it may seem, the temptations and distractions while working from home are everywhere. The dog needs walking, the kids have to be dropped at the bus stop and the laundry needs to be hung out to dry. It takes immense personal discipline to ignore the household chores that interrupt our time at the home office.

Workplace productivity is already a huge problem for the economy. According to the Productivity Commission, our productivity is among the worst in the OECD. What little recent productivity growth we get has come from more people working longer hours. That’s not the solution.

Our productivity problems are not limited to office workers either. This week I watched half a dozen road workers stopping for a break. At 10.30am, a 20-minute wait for coffee followed by another 20 minutes to drink the stuff was more like a lunch break than a morning tea stop. And we wonder why construction costs are so high.

Improving productivity is a function of better skills, improving efficiency and using technology better. But it’s also about our attitudes to work. It’s about teams of people who achieve more by working together, working better, smarter and focusing on outcomes. It’s about showing up at work, ready to work.

People who get regular training and personal interaction are more engaged and that engagement delivers better outcomes and increased productivity. That’s really hard to do when your people are scattered around the suburbs.

In a way, it’s no different to the students who don’t want to attend high school classes or university lectures. I get it. Working from home is easier. You can avoid the traffic. You can be there when the kids come home. That’s invaluable. You can be there when the plumber calls or the rain comes and the laundry needs to be brought in.

“… the stuff that is often missing in the post-Covid world – the opportunity to care about the business that pays us to turn up every day.”

But we’re forgetting what the home worker is missing out on. The opportunity to bounce ideas off the person beside you. Or to chat to a colleague in the kitchen or the hallway. The chance to mentor someone who’s struggling or to receive some positive input from someone else. And let’s not forget, the chance to build relationships.

And while our employer wants us to “do our job”, whether that’s preparing the accounts, the PowerPoint presentation or the advertising campaign, they also need us to add value to the enterprise. The value that comes with ideas, relationships and chats with someone who needs help. The value that comes from noticing something that’s not quite right with a product, a customer or a colleague, and then doing something about it.

And that’s the stuff that is often missing in the post-Covid world – the opportunity to care about the business that pays us to turn up every day.

It still exists in places. Some workplaces are high on aspiration and the energy that comes with it. Career-hungry people will always turn up each day. They’re keen to get their hands on the next piece of work and desperate to be noticed. They’ll look the part and be happy to meet a new person or visit a new client.

In my experience, it’s easier than ever to spot the people who want to take their careers to another level. They’re the ones who are showing up. They’re not all young either. There are plenty of 40-somethings turning up at the office, trying to get noticed in the hope that it will lead to something bigger, better or more fulfilling.

And that’s the problem with working from home: you don’t get noticed when you’re sitting in your kitchen all day.

And let’s not forget the mental health argument. For many of us, nothing is quite so mentally draining as being on our own.

A study this year by American workplace consulting and research company Gallup revealed that some 17 per cent of the US adult population are experiencing significant loneliness. If that statistic is applied to our population, we’re talking about 714,000 people.

For many people, loneliness is a major factor in their mental health challenges. The act of going to work, where we are interacting with people on the bus, in the car park, at the lunch bar and the office, is about engaging with others. Mental health has always been a bigger problem than we understood. We’re finally working it out, and one thing we’re learning is that people need to interact with each other.

“There are plenty of 40-somethings turning up at the office, trying to get noticed in the hope that it will lead to something bigger, better or more fulfilling. They’ve worked out that you don’t get noticed when you’re sitting in your kitchen all day.”

And so back to Victoria University. The problem with the students’ association viewpoint is that it seems hell-bent on preparing people for a life of remote work. Its protests against a university that wanted students to attend classes might result in a generation of graduates who haven’t had to get out of bed.

I remember going to a first lecture in a crowded auditorium and sitting beside a total stranger. I remember the awkward conversations with the person I didn’t know. Some of those people become acquaintances, some become friends. Building relationships with strangers is a learning process. You get better at it the more you do it. Those skills carry over to other aspects of life and, most importantly, to your chosen career.

But we seem to be sheltering people from the experiences that enable the development of such skills. The graduate who hasn’t had to have those uncomfortable discussions with someone they don’t know will probably end up being similarly uncomfortable when they get to their workplace. If you haven’t developed the skills to make conversation and form relationships at high school or university, the chances are that you will struggle to do so in the workplace.

The same challenges are occurring elsewhere. According to real estate statistics, there is potentially up to 30 per cent more office space in the world than we now need. The reason? People working from home.

But things go in cycles and this too will change. Many of us are expecting a recession in the year ahead. There have been plenty of warnings from our Reserve Bank and elsewhere that one of the unfortunate side-effects of the anticipated downturn is that some people will lose their jobs.

I remember hearing similar warnings during the GFC 15 years ago. I also remember sick days decreasing as the economy crashed. More people turned up on time. Fewer workers were absent or even late. There is nothing like a recession and the threat of job losses to bring people back to work.

But if they’re not attending school, and they do university from their bedroom, I’m not sure they’ll arrive at the office ready to work

This article first appeared in The New Zealand Herald, Saturday 25th November 2023.