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Mike Redwood ponders the changing workplace environment post-lockdown and how this has reached even the tanning world.
The world of work has been changed by the pandemic. Attitudes to working from home (WFH) may vary across the world, by company, culture and individual circumstances, but the concept that employees in a huge variety of areas can be effective working outside the office has parked itself firmly in modern business life.
It is easy for tanners to ignore WFH since tanning leather involves constant hands-on work. Recent major mechanisation and automation developments have been transformative but, even so, machine makers remain sensitive to the need for human intervention at every stage.
Yet, we saw during the pandemic that there are many tannery functions which do not need an everyday presence in the tannery and, for such workers, as with many others in the manufacturing and service industries, a shake-up is probably overdue. It has become too common to think that what we currently do is what has always been done.
Even the manufacturing of leather gloves and slippers once involved a home-working element that was adapted to help a family through its different stages and, if it could be properly managed, looks sensible in a modern setting, despite the tax authorities in many countries pushing to eliminate it since it is thought hard to regulate. And it does need monitoring as it was homeworking that led to the child labour issues in soccer ball making in Pakistan – albeit the costly factory-based solution ended in failure.
It is hard to remember that the idea of an office is quite a new concept and, for centuries, most business activities took place in public spaces like merchant halls, coffee shops or even churches. Concepts like the Chinese “996” (nine to nine, six days a week), the Japanese “OL” (office lady) and “window watching tribe” (less competent staff but hard to fire so left by the window and given little to do) are very recent, though bullying bosses have forever made life intolerable.
In tanning, many important meetings have taken place over breakfast, dinner or coffee in a variety of hotels, bars and restaurants, often associated with trade fairs like the APLF. The Chinese government clearly had not spoken to the leather industry when it started changing things in Hong Kong.
Be it Shanghai, Manila, Addis, Milan or Boston, most tanners have used third spaces like hotel lobbies for major meetings, in the same ways as public spaces were used in the past. Many modern cities are now hoping this can be recreated to better fit city work and life in the future. Without a doubt, the look of work, the place of work, the office itself and the total environment need to be rethought to fit the needs of new generations with different hopes and fears, and different circumstances.
In the last few days, I was reminded about a new work situation that remains a consequence of the pandemic which is “stuck at home”. This applies to many senior managers with overseas subsidiaries, especially those with tanneries in China, or Chinese tanners with overseas plants in places like Africa. Quite a few of these tanneries have had to be left unvisited for nearly three years because of travel restrictions. This is stressful.
It further extends to sales staff and others like auditors and will have impacted the chemical and other supply businesses even more. A new reliance on video conferencing and other digital tools, along with absolute trust in local staff, has become a norm. New approaches have already grown from this situation and thoughts about the need for never-ending global travel should benefit both productivity and climate change, but they only marginally ease the anxiety of checking things in person. And no Teams conversation can ever replace wandering around a tannery together and sharing thoughts in an informal setting afterwards.
There was a view long before Covid-19 that relentless meetings had become sterile and outdated, loaded with worthless signals about hierarchy, those determined to be dominant and those preferring just to listen. For tanners, life today is more about activity, creativity and inventiveness. It requires stimulating environments, not antiseptic, white-walled conference rooms.
But tannery life could become even more productive if these changes are well managed and take into account the many changing forces that can make work a better fit for younger generations living in a world that has transformed. And one in which, if we are thoughtful and creative, should consume more leather.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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