The three key principles of popular support

Dr Jonathan Boff, a lecturer at Birmingham University specialising in modern warfare and with a particular interest in the connection between morale and military effectiveness, was interviewed for the excellent History Extra podcast, produced by the BBC History Magazine (Blitz Spirt, March 23).

He said that there are limits to how far a society will get with pure volunteerism from citizens (that is people opting to do good unprompted). People need to feel there is popular support in their community before they throw themselves behind a war effort.

We think that exactly the same applies to working life. If you want colleagues to make sacrifices for your business now, Boff’s three key principles of popular support should be adhered to:

• Proportionality: sacrifice has to be proportional to the threat faced and must have a chance of success. You have to explain why what is being asked of people is going to work. If you are cutting pay by 20%, for example, you need to make clear how this offers clarity as to the viability of your enterprise. Otherwise, why accept a cut which merely postpones the inevitable?

• Fairness: people will give up an awful lot as long as they feel that everyone else is being put in the same boat. We see this widely in client businesses and broader society. That means the best-paid should suffer most in your business. The economically weakest must be protected. If you need to reduce payroll, pay cuts should be banded.

• Hope: Boff said: “…providing hope for the future (is important). Everyone knows one is in a crisis and the crisis has to be overcome in the short run but again the lesson of the two World Wars is that just saying we are going back to how things were before is not the right answer. We have to come up with ways to think of a better world that we can inhabit in the future than the one we left behind us in the past. The First World War was largely fought by people who thought that they were going to be able to dial the clock back to how it had been in 1913 and 1914. What they found…that was impossible.

“Therefore, when the Second World War came along, it was those people who managed to highlight not only the need to defeat Nazism but also to create a better world who managed to capture the public imagination and indeed eventually to win the General Election of 1945.”

Business leaders need to position their companies as part of the creation of a better society and to think about how the working life of colleagues will be better when this crisis passes. Notwithstanding that working from home compulsorily and exclusively is very difficult, it is also the case that the great WFH (working from home debate) is over. From here on, colleagues will not be expected to punch the clock every morning. Flexible, semi-autonomous working will be the norm. Tell your people now how that will operate.

And the weird thing is that we also know that we love the sociability of work. So the days at home will be good and the days at work will be fun.