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Weekend reading: Many managers can’t manage much longer

Weekend reading logo

What caught my eye this week.

I suppose it’s because I’ve long worked from home anyway, but I’ve been overlooking a big aspect of ‘back to office’ post-Covid debate.

Hitherto I’ve mostly focused on the productivity angle. How would firms weigh productivity gains from remote work against the loss of culture or development potential, I wondered?

As an active investor, I’ve spent 18 months shifting my money back and forth between work-from-home stocks like Zoom and Atlassian and beaten-up commercial property, reflecting my changing views.

But what I’d forgotten is that people are people. And that some of them are desperate to get back to an office simply to justify their jobs.

I’m someone who has more than once left office life – and killed my career prospects doing so, at least in that dark pre-lockdown era – just to escape the politics, busywork, colleagues I’ve have to carry, and clueless managers.

So it’s pretty dumb of me not to see that those who thrive in such an environment might want it back, pronto, entirely for their own reasons.

Logged out

One class of such people are, more or less, the loafers.

These are the non-working workers celebrated in books like City Slackers, Bonjour Laziness, and Michel Houllebecq’s Whatever.

They need to be in an office because remote work is usually more carefully measured work.

Doing nothing soon adds up.

I haven’t got anything personally against such people. Some of my best friends and so on. Many jobs are rubbish and soulless. Not everyone is cut out to be a cog in a modern machine.

However I don’t want to effectively be paying for them with my output, as the lack of their own drags us all down.

As a freelance I have no choice but to be measured on my own output. At least that way I live or die by my own sword.

How do they manage?

The other type of office denizen who has been drowning for 18 months – while waving all the time – perches at the other end of the org chart.

I’m thinking of high-flying, do-nothing managers.

I’m lucky to have had several great employers in my short on/off work CV. A couple of companies that regularly win/won awards as great places to work.

And largely they were.

Yet their corridors were still patrolled by a few of those passive-aggressive managerial types who climb up the career pole with spiked boots and aren’t concerned with who they gouge in the head on the way.

These are people whose days are packed with meetings where they talk a lot but rarely contribute. People who apparently did something great a few years ago, but always seem to be stealing someone else’s ideas today. People in charge of people that you wouldn’t let look after your dog.

An article from MSN this week brought them flooding back:

Remote work lays bare many brutal inefficiencies and problems that executives don’t want to deal with because they reflect poorly on leaders and those they’ve hired.

Remote work empowers those who produce and disempowers those who have succeeded by being excellent diplomats and poor workers, along with those who have succeeded by always finding someone to blame for their failures.

It removes the ability to seem productive (by sitting at your desk looking stressed or always being on the phone), and also, crucially, may reveal how many bosses and managers simply don’t contribute to the bottom line.

The horror. The horror.

What do you do again?

The CEO of a company I consulted for once admitted to me that he had no idea what a highly-paid mutual acquaintance on his payroll actually did.

This guy was on many projects. Yet looking for his fingerprints in the output was like hunting for the Higgs boson. Younger staff came up with the things that moved the company ahead. Meanwhile our chum was always in a meeting.

The CEO admitted he kept this chancer around almost out of superstition. The company was doing well ever since this chap was hired, even if nobody could say exactly why. The people he managed despaired of him.

I suggested perhaps our mutual contact’s direct reports worked harder under him in order to try to get past him – in the same way you’ll try to overtake a dangerous driver to put him in your rear-view mirror.

The CEO pondered this for a bit. And kept him on.

Poor petals!

Some of these high-flying underachievers do add a sort of social glue that – at least historically – bigger companies have seemed to need to grow.

Others have a brilliant idea every year or two and then fall back into a coma. That might just be enough to justify their salary and position.

But many are simply friction in the system. After a year of sending fifty Bcc-d emails a day or pinging Slack like a teenager on Snap and saying the most on Zoom in meetings but basically saying nothing, they risk being unmasked.

Meanwhile lots of actual workers at the coalface have been working from bed during the pandemic and still turning out great stuff. So it’s not like these unmanageable managers’ fears of the company culture being eroded or destroyed by homeworking are unfounded. Even if it’s actually being replaced by something better.

Often charmers, the best of these people remind me of those flowering epiphytes that thrive high in the rain forest canopy.

Growing on the sides of the trees who do all the proper hard work, they are beautiful and exotic and for hundreds of years scientists have debated whether they are harmless, subtly value-adding, or flat-out parasitic.

If you’re a fancy orchid that bears no fruit, no wonder you’re desperate to get back to the hothouse.

Even as many of the rest of us head for the doors.

Have a great weekend – whoever you are!

From Monevator

Best Emerging Market bond ETFs and bond funds – Monevator

An introduction to thematic ETFs – Monevator

From the archive-ator: What I learned about investing from a cult card-based strategy game – Monevator

News

Note: Some links are Google search results – in PC/desktop view you can click to read the piece without being a paid subscriber. Try privacy/incognito mode to avoid cookies. Consider subscribing if you read them a lot!1

Johnson could rethink National Insurance rise after Tory backlash – Guardian

Another platform acquired: Charles Stanley by Raymond James – LSE

House prices now 30% above 2007 peak, says Zoopla – ThisIsMoney

Should you consider this loophole to avoid the rise in pension age to 57? – Which

Over five million people in the UK had parcels lost or stolen last year – Guardian

Physical stores going hybrid with micro-fulfillment centres – Axios

City high-end housing markets bounce back [Search result]FT

Products and services

Lloyds has launched a new credit card offering 0.5% cashback – Which

Why cheques aren’t dead yet [Search result]FT

Sign-up to Freetrade via my link and we can both get a free share worth between £3 and £200 – Freetrade

Homes for the festival season, in pictures – Guardian

Comment and opinion

Tracking spending: a foundational skill of personal finance – Managing FI

The first million is the easy bit – Banker on Fire

How to predict a market crash – A Wealth of Common Sense

Life is a tale of two halves – Humble Dollar

A chat with Burton Malkiel of random walk fame [Podcast]Next Gen Personal Finance

The US has never seen inflation so high with bond yields this low – The Irrelevant Investor

The case for investing your emergency fund – Trek Wealth

Problems buying a house in the UK with crypto gains due to anti-money laundering regulations – Reddit

Gen Z is rewriting the rules for personal finance in real-time – Money

Tim Ferris talks to Ramit Sethi (author of IWTYTBR) [Podcast]Tim Ferris

Americans with a higher net worth at midlife tend to live longer – Science Daily

Naughty corner: Active antics

Cash on Cash return versus IRR – AVC

Carson Block’s take on China’s crackdown on US-listed giants – Institutional Investor

When quality companies face a reckoning – Intrinsic Investing

Eventually, valuation matters – Compound Advisors

Covid corner

95% of British adults still [sometimes] wearing a mask when out – Guardian

The Delta variant is keeping US workers from the office… – Axios

…more US restaurants and bars only serving the vaccinated – MarketWatch

…and Netflix to require all actors and set staff to be vaccinated – Deadline

…while anti-vaxxers and Covid deniers party at the Lake of the Ozarks – Politico

Kindle book bargains

Elastic Habits: How to Create Smarter Habits That Adapt to Your Day by Stephen Guise – £0.99 on Kindle

Zen: The Art of Simple Living by Shunmyo Masuno – £0.99 on Kindle

A Colossal Failure of Common Sense: The Collapse of Lehman Brothers – £0.99 on Kindle

SAS: Leadship Secrets from the Special Forces by various authors – £0.99 on Kindle

Environmental factors

MPs fear UK grid won’t cope with a surge in electric vehicles – ThisIsMoney

What growing avocados in Sicily tells us about climate change and the future of food [Search result]FT

Plants feel pain and might even see – Nautilus

Climate benchmarks and the big oil companies – DIY Investor (UK)

Off our beat

Lap it up: what’s so special about swimming? – The Conversation

The end of free speech in Hong Kong – The Atlantic

Can you be addicted to travel? – Atlas Obscura

And finally…

“Large, comfortable companies today must stay on the offensive or they might find themselves in the dustbin of dividend history. Just look at Kodak or Nokia.”
– Todd Wenning, Keeping Your Dividend Edge

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{ 32 comments… add one }
  • 1 PC July 31, 2021, 11:58 am

    Very interesting on the working from home debate. My employer has decided we have to go into the office 2 days a week, since 19 July, despite us proving that working from home works well or even better over the past year and a half and more than half of the people I work with are in other countries. Very frustrating and I suspect driven by someone in upper management suffering from what you describe.

  • 2 AfroLatino July 31, 2021, 12:13 pm

    Wow – great article! Totally enjoyed reading this. Thank you

  • 3 Andy July 31, 2021, 12:15 pm

    I think one’s take on this depends on the office environment one has experienced and the job one does more than anything.

    From the other side of the fence, I come back to this: there’s a reason cities have thrived and will continue to thrive through the inventions such as the telephone, fax, email and internet. It’s because connections matter – people physically meeting is important, whether counterparties or occasional meetings. Random interactions is important. Networking is important. Juniors learning by osmosis is important. Zoom et al is possible, but it’s not an effective substitute. People got things done remotely through the pandemic because they had to, and they worked hard in the process, but now things are liberalising again there’s a strong and understandable desire to get back to how things were.

    I very much enjoy working from home, but I also enjoy being in an office with colleagues. I would hate to entirely drop that.

    Many of the perpetual WFH advocates have had their time learning on the job from seniors in busy cities; to try and take it away now because it’s suits their current lifestyle and needs (no commute, less need for training) is a bit hypocritical.

  • 4 HariSeldon July 31, 2021, 2:29 pm

    I was interested in the linked article “The case for investing your emergency fund”, a sign of a market top perhaps? How much someone sets aside is a very personal decision.

    I know I am a perennial optimist but this is pretty hard core. Considers the breakdown of a heating/cooling system, market ups and downs, but no mention of losing your job in a downturn (markets could be down at the same time..), medical emergencies that aren’t a surgery but one that loses you income longer term or causes a disability , relationship breakdowns, all the stuff that gets you when your not expecting it.

    Behavioural indicators often seem more telling than the economic ones.

    Thanks for the link.

  • 5 Fatbritabroad July 31, 2021, 2:33 pm

    “Should you consider this loophole to avoid the rise in pension age to 55?”

    Should be 57 shouldn’t it?

  • 6 Neverland July 31, 2021, 3:10 pm

    Re. Charles Stanley. Its usually a top of the market indicator when regional US banks start buying UK brokers

  • 7 Ian Oliver July 31, 2021, 3:15 pm

    I used to have a team of sixty people spread across four continents. I don’t recall how many countries but come pay rise time I was working in eleven currencies.

    Managing teams like this remotely takes a lot of good systems, a lot of know-how, and a lot of hard work, but that’s all part of being a manager TBH.

  • 8 Financial Samurai July 31, 2021, 4:15 pm

    I’m digging the chart about a surge in urban prime sales! I’m assuming it’s referring to real estate. The only squabble I have his that San Francisco is not included.

    Out of all the major international cities in the world, I think San Francisco deserves to be right up there given the number of massive global companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, Clorox etc that are here.

    Where’s the love Knight?!

    Sam

  • 9 G July 31, 2021, 4:22 pm

    Both types of manager both very recognisable. Happily seen some of the spikey heeled types wither and then disappear from view and eventually company as a result of WFH during lockdown. Good riddance – no-one needs that kind of toxic waste around.

    Our company seems to be falling into two camps. Colleagues with kids/other caring responsibilities/a life/over 40 quite happy to never go into the office again – or on much reduced hours there. Others – particularly junior staff at the beginning of their career – desperate to back into it. I totally appreciate our younger staff’s position – being stuck in a room in a shared house with communal living space and no garden in a hot urban area frankly sounds like a nightmare. Some have better situations by moving out of London – either back to parents in UK or overseas -or to cheaper towns & cities. It is fascinating, however, that for all of their technological literacy, my younger colleagues are desperate for in person contact with their managers and mentors.

  • 10 Andrew July 31, 2021, 4:38 pm

    I’m currently trying to decide between switching to a job that will require me to be in the office 5 days a week, or stay put, where I get to WFH for 2 days a week.

    The 5 day in-office gig pays double and may be more stimulating, and it’s still not an easy choice!

  • 11 ZXSpectrum48k July 31, 2021, 4:55 pm

    I last went into the office in Feb 2020. To be fair I never went in more than 2-3 days anyway. I’ve talked to my manager once in the last 18 months for about 15 minutes. I haven’t physically ever met some newer members of my team. Hired them without ever meeting them except via video. They have never been to the Mayfair office or any office. I didn’t bother with their year end appraisals. My manager didn’t bother with my year end appraisal. We’re paid on a formula anyway so it was always completely pointless.

    It’s all absolutely fine. In fact it’s been an awesome 18 months or so in performance terms for my team and for the broader fund. Is it a coincidence that a total absence of teamwork and management leads to better results? Correlation doesn’t mean causation but I ain’t changing what isn’t broke.

    P.S. What is the ffing point of Slack? It seems an application without a purpose.

  • 12 G July 31, 2021, 6:05 pm

    @Andrew. Does it really pay double once commuting time, commuting costs, suit wear, tax etc are taken into consideration?

  • 13 ermine July 31, 2021, 7:30 pm

    That Which article on pension ages over 55 is so randomly bonkers it’s not even wrong. I suspect it’s written by AI and I claim my £5. If not it was written by an intern. It’s light on content and actionable stuff:

    DC SIPPs are by definition subject to government goalpost shifting, because their pension ages are illustrations only. Some workplace pensions may well specify a retirement age and perhaps they are a way out, in which case the recommendation is investigate your workplace pension and see if it has a retirement age baked in. I am unaware of any open market options that say we will protect you from future pension age legislation.

    Perhaps citing a couple of these mythical SIPPs that allow you to grandfather your age 55 earliest access date would have been a great addition to a piece of lightweight fluff and taught us something new.

    As for

    So if you can continue working, it’s well worth doing so you can enjoy the best retirement possible for you.

    Earth to AI writer for Which. Humans don’t live forever. They’re running out of something else apart from money, at a standard rate of 24 hours every day. The human may well be able to continue working, but it’s not necessarily a path to the best retirement possible for them, cold silicon heart of AI darkness.

  • 14 Matthew July 31, 2021, 8:58 pm

    On the subject of high paid employees with unknown responsibilities, you might enjoy the random job title generator:

    https://www.bullshitjob.com/title/

  • 15 Learner July 31, 2021, 9:18 pm

    I’ve become a manager of all remote engineers and it suits me just fine. Pre-covid it was mostly in-office, then over the past year and with the return to office looming, one by one all the local people left for remote competitors. I think the writing is on the wall for 5-days a week, and to some extent any-days a week life. Culture change by attrition.

    The best managers I’ve encountered have a genuine enthusiasm for improving work life for their team (and follow through), and/or still get their hands dirty here and there. Perhaps I’ve lucked out with my encounters with others but that’s what I strive for. Being a “high-flying underachiever” sounds incredibly precarious to me! No thanks.

  • 16 The Weasel July 31, 2021, 10:19 pm

    Ha, some commenters here complaining about going back to the office 2 days a week.

    Try my stupid CEO expecting everyone to go back 5 days a week since the 19th of July. Despite the company performing better than ever financially through the pandemic.

    I’m hoping for a massive loss of talent in the coming months that forces him to change course. Or else I’ll go. Which would be a shame as the job is great otherwise.

  • 17 AVB August 1, 2021, 7:58 am

    I wonder if it would ever be possible to train that plant to look like me over zoom calls and do my job?

  • 18 JDW August 1, 2021, 10:02 am

    The invest your emergency fund article is an interesting perspective, thanks for sharing that (and the others, as ever).

    It’s a strange one, isn’t it? Call me old fashioned, but the point of an emergency fund is surely exactly that. Easy to access cash funds, only if you need them. I’m not at all bothered about return, rates, inflation erosion etc on that portion of my portfolio (other than topping it up every now and again). Locking it away elsewhere defeats the point right?

    Luckily my work seems fairly open to a three days office/ two WFH spilt but easier as we are a small team of six. Pretty sure I would look elsewhere otherwise. My sister works for a large firm struggling to adapt and are going back to 5 days a week in person asap (their email about it was titled ‘your return to work’. My sister was raging, along with many, she *has* been working, harder if anything, in an industry in turmoil, for the last year, just the location has changed. I suspect has lots of middle managers looking to justify their purpose and old fashioned top dogs who don’t understand employees can actually be more productive when at home. Some companies are going to have a massive shock in the coming months and years when they can’t retain staff, nor hire new ones, who want flexible working to suit them.

  • 19 The Investor August 1, 2021, 10:16 am

    Thanks for the comments everyone!

    Regarding the potential staffing problems of less flexible companies, there’s another way to look at this. What if the managerial class returns to the office, where it longs to be, but their charges don’t — or don’t want to in the way the managers would prefer — so there’s more of a them and us dynamic created. In this circumstance I think it’d be even easier to start swapping out local working-for-homers for cheaper talent in India or wherever.

    Of course this will probably happen to some extent anyway, but it’s kind of ironic from my perspective that the less productive managers are probably equally less productive managing cheaper overseas staff as locally sourced ones, and from their point of view might face less hassle with the latter in a post-lockdown world… 😐

  • 20 The Investor August 1, 2021, 10:17 am

    @Fatbritabroad — Oops, yes if it should. Cheers! Hope I didn’t make anyone’s future look even more far-flung with that typo.

  • 21 ZXSpectrum48k August 1, 2021, 11:41 am

    @TI. Everyone worries about this idea that UK employees will be replaced by those in EM markets. So what? They also don’t seem to mention that this can work well for UK employees because we also don’t need to be in the UK.

    My boss has spent the whole of the summer at his house in Ibiza rather than commuting into central London. We’ve taken a one month vacation in the Med, rather than the usual two weeks, because I’ve shipped out a couple of extra screens so I can work from the villa etc. I could easily imagine working the whole 8-9 week school holiday in the Med. Might sell a small London flat to buy a large villa on Kos!

  • 22 reckless saving August 1, 2021, 2:48 pm

    For decades large employers have been cost cutting, closing offices, outsourcing across the globe with the costs to employees with lower wages if not prepared to stay with the company that’s moved location or increased commuting cost/time, less work live balance. Roles have gradually moved to being location agnostic.

    The next stage which has been slowly evolving over the last 10 years is making an employer more attractive to future employees by evolving the office cultures, work/live balance through encouraging more flexible working. One challenge faced is the mindset of present-ism, people feeling they need to be in the office to be seen as valued, it’s certainly something that’s wrestled in my mind, to try and break this cycle a couple of our offices were reconfigured to only support 60% of the required resources to push employees to work from home at least a couple of days a week.

    I think the pandemic has brought forward hybrid working 10 years, I certainly won’t miss 2.5hrs a day commuting now classes as a hybrid worker, if I was within 20mins of the office I’d probable want to be in the office most of the time for a change of location. For my role it’s likely I’ll only be in the office once a month, I’m used to working from home so not sure how I feel about this. I can see the negatives for hybrid workers in general but for me I already experience these negatives as when I was in the office with my role being location agnostic, although I have noticed that new jobs being advertised as being hybrid have a lower salary range advertised.

  • 23 Matthew August 1, 2021, 4:47 pm

    I think it needs to be said that globalisation was previously thought to be a threat to blue collar workers, now it threatens white collar workers with work from a foreign home it must feel like a different game. Globalisation that makes what you buy cheaper helps you, so long as it doesn’t compete with what you supply yourself. Ultimately globalisation is part of free markets and would leave society as a whole richer, when you compound the extra efficiency year after year.

    Besides all that, work from home must be reducing physical journeys people are having to make, and less concentration of traffic, housing demand, etc.
    Globalisation might also, by reducing prices, reduce the urge to automate.

    Education can also be globalised with online access to the world, leading to much more supply potentially, and if money can flow round the world without physical migration we might as a side effect wind up with less cultural mixing in the future, which itself might cause societal problems, although having more isolated and distinct cultures might make tourism feel more authentic.

  • 24 Hudlbuck August 1, 2021, 5:28 pm

    @ZX I was emailed last year by a lady whose villa we stayed in on Crete a couple of years ago: offering a 25% discount on the (anyway cheaper) winter rates, for a booking of at least one month. She billed it as a “why not work from home from Greece”. I was sorely tempted even though I’m retired, as the kids could also have flown out for a short break. In the end all the Covid uncertainty meant it was not feasible, but maybe this winter ….

  • 25 MrOptimistic August 1, 2021, 7:13 pm

    Be careful not to underestimate the power of getting your face seen – for which scheduled video meetings won’t compensate. Then, of course, there is the magic of ‘presenteeism’.

    Working from home may result in a bit more flexibility in the future but think it will lead to tensions over holiday entitlements and discrimination concerns between different roles within the company. So I doubt we are in a paradigm shift. In two years reckon it will be status quo ante near enough.

  • 26 Rosario August 1, 2021, 9:39 pm

    Like many here I’ve enjoyed working from home for the last 18 months. I’m fortunate that I have a suitable home office and few distractions. My company has taken a step forward from their previous fairly exclusive office arrangement and are now requesting staff aim for 60% office attendance. All seemingly good there.

    The only thing which keeps playing in my mind is that although the 60/40 rule is in place I can see this quickly returning to near 100% office. Especially for the management types keen to either justify their existence or the more senior managers whom seem to be stuck in the mode of thinking. Crucially I think that anyone with upwardly mobile career aspirations will almost be forced to adopt this approach. There is a gravity to power and the office can be a very political place where impressions count.

  • 27 The Borderer August 2, 2021, 8:42 am

    When I was freelancing for various consultancies, I used to pray for a truly useless, clockwatching idiot of a manager.
    The sort that asks you “how long do you think this task will take?” – because they have no idea themselves. Amazing that I always came in ahead of deadline.
    And as to clockwatching, it just means you only have to work for 4 minutes per day. At 7:59, 12:01, 12:59 and 17:01.

  • 28 Brod August 2, 2021, 12:49 pm

    I too think the great danger of homeworking is off-shoring. To compete with this, workers will have to offer to reduce the frictions caused by off-shoring and be more productive and agile i.e. return to the workplace at least maybe 3 a days a week.

    The other effect has been people buying larger-than-needed houses because they “need” two home offices. This has happened in our street where two couples each with two children have moved into 5/6 bed places. Both funded by inheritances. Which feels like an enormous Ponzi scheme but I suppose that’s the British way.

  • 29 Mike August 2, 2021, 4:24 pm

    I’ve one word for the immeasurable benefits of working in an office: Scuttlebutting (i.e. gossiping around the water fountain) – It’s vital for my sanity and I’d imagine an important way to network – these random interactions have a way of adding up and are impossible (and certainly less fun) in a complete homeworking environment.

  • 30 ZXSpectrum48k August 2, 2021, 4:37 pm

    @Brod. I think having two home offices is pretty vital if you are serious about homeworking.

    I tried many years ago to share the same study as my better half. It was pretty difficult. She was in and out of the study ever five minutes, constantly on the phone chatting to other humans, asking me my view on what colour we wanted the toilet in the ensuite of bedroom 5. It really disturbed my ability to surf the internet and play computer games. Sometimes, it even got in the way of work.

  • 31 weenie August 2, 2021, 6:31 pm

    Agree with @Mike (comment 29) on the Scuttlebutting – until I returned to the office recently, I had forgotten how much I had missed just randomly chatting to other people around the coffee machine, if only to complain about the weather! Therefore, I will be going into the office to socialise, show my face, make/maintain networks and relationships. Fortunately, I can choose to go in once or twice a week (or not at all).

  • 32 Brod August 3, 2021, 12:40 pm

    @ZX

    🙂

    I guess, but only if you’re both at home 5 days a week instead of getting in some much needed Scuttlebutting. Which I think to most of us human types is pretty essential. Think you could manage you time if you’re 50% in the office?

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