A post-office world?

When my wife [hi Sarah!] and I made the decision to move out of South East London [big up big up Crystal Palace massive] three years back, I planned to work from home for “at least” a day a week. I was going from a 45-minute commute to one which would take an hour and a half, and anyway it’s not like I actually need to be physically ‘in the office’ every day…

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Most weeks I was in every day, with perhaps a day working from home every couple of weeks. And when I did, I made it very clear what I would be working on…

Because tradition states that work is something that was done… well… at work. And everyone knows that all this newfangled “working from home” nonsense really just means dossing around doing nothing. No way that someone could be as productive from home, or that they could really be trusted to do their work instead of drifting off and playing computer games or watching daytime TV.

“Oh yeah right working from home mate yeah? Like nice one yeah?!”

Of course I knew that wasn’t the case: if anything I tended to work longer hours, with less distractions, fewer interruptions and less breaks than I did at the office. Without my friendly neighbourhood Finance Director [hi Jonny!] sitting next to me ready to wander off and grab a coffee, I was smashing through my to-do-list at quite a pace.

In fact, if I had organised a bunch of things to put on my WHF to-do-list which might have taken me a whole day to get done in the office, I might even find that I was through it by early afternoon and freeing up time to get to some of the important stuff that often got bumped by the urgent stuff.

But I always felt I had to check in with people too to prove I wasn’t off doing what I thought people might think I was doing instead of work. Call it “virtual presenteeism” if you like – an email, a text, just to say “I am still here, and I am still working”.

And I was also conscious that it was all very well for me to be working from home, because I’m in the privileged position of being the boss of the agency and thus a) largely setting my own work timetable and b) having no one to tell me what to do or where to be (in London, anyway!). Not so easy if you’re the Account Manager with the client on the phone all day, or the Planner with a creative team to brief…

Within a matter of days, lockdown meant that “WFH” was the norm. And soon everyone showed that they can work just as hard, just as effectively, just as productively from wherever their laptop was set up.

We’ve still had some issues – of course we have. The blurring of lines between work space and home space has meant that hours become blurred too; sometimes too much. I still have the occasional twitch which pushes me into digital presenteeism… now using Teams or WhatsApp as much as the other channels I used to use. “Video calls” where instead of a load of faces it’s just a sea of initials or avatars made everything feel very cold and unnatural [luckily we’ve pulled ourselves up on this and have made a real effort over recent weeks – it’s made a massive difference].

Stolen from my cousin Nick’s post [hi mate!]

And I’ve written recently about the lack of opportunity for ad hoc, in person, informal learning from colleagues and co-workers which I found so valuable in my formative years.

So there’s stuff to fix, but surely the stigma around working from home will have been the one victim of this virus that we can be positive about?

Hmm. I’m not sure.

When our office spaces are back to something like normality, will the assumption return that work is done “at work”? If we don’t need to work from home, wouldn’t it just be better if most of the people were in one place most of the time?

I think there are various truths about this whole thing that we’re going to need to reconsider, and possibly reconcile, over the coming weeks and months…

  1. There is no substitute for personal, face-to-face interaction. None.
  2. I would not have the relationships that I have with the people with whom I work had I not spent a lot of time with them in the same place [specifically “the office”, in case you’re wondering].
  3. Building an organisational culture without being physically together as a group would be really, really difficult. Not impossible, but tough.
  4. A strong organisational culture makes a company more resilient to a crisis, with shared values acting as the strongest foundation for honest, genuine working relationships.
  5. Some people have been more productive working virtually, with associated benefits in their mental wellbeing and emotional and physical energy
  6. Some people have found working virtually incredibly difficult, with the blurred lines between work and home feeling both draining and isolating at the same time.
  7. Some people will work like a dog no matter where you put them.
  8. Some people will do as little as possible no matter how much faith you put in them.
  9. Virtual hugs are not as good as actual hugs. Especially from me, as I am a world-class hugger [N.B. this is not my personal opinion – I have a full trophy room to prove it].
  10. It’s all about trust.

Yeah I know, I funnelled you into that last one. But it really is.

And so before you do anything else, assume positive intent. I know it’s obvious, and I know it’s not always easy. But it’s also surprisingly uplifting.

Assume that people are trustworthy. That they care about their work and their colleagues. That they want to do a good job, every day.

That they trust you to do the same.

Let’s all assume that we’re all doing our best, unless specifically proven otherwise, and a lot of this “new normal” [aaaarrrrgggghhh that phrase again] planning will be a lot easier. Start with trust and we can crack on making a new kind of totally flexible working – flexible around you as an individual with specific requirements and specific responsibilities, in all parts of your life, like never before – really work. For all of us.

From Lockdown to Learning

My two young boys went back to school today. For the first time since March, I am in my home without the noise of one or other of them going about their day. It’s been very quiet, and may take a little getting used to. But they’re off, happy to be amongst friends again. Happy to be back to a place they can learn.

And soon enough, other parts of life may well start to change, as we begin to emerge from our self-isolated work cocoons and converge on the physical space that once seemed so crucial to our lives. “THE OFFICE” had such a gravitational pull for so many reasons and held such importance and such reverence as “the place where we work”. But will that place still have the same pull now some of our old certainties about how and where we work have been unlearned?

For some, release from the horror of the daily commute from the suburbs to the epicentre of our biggest cities has been financially and emotionally liberating. For others, time to work and think without the distractions of an open plan battery farm of desks has meant a more productive, more focussed working day. And for others, more time at home has allowed them to experience a greater connection into family life than ever.

And then…

For some, the need for social stimulus coupled with the ubiquitous but still unnatural video calls has meant that working days are both lonely and tiring at the same time. For others, the lack of ad hoc interactions has actually made work more difficult, more complex, and more formalised than it would ideally be. And for others, a lack of suitable structured workspace in shared accommodation has blurred the line between work and non-work way too much.

All of these are real for those who experience them. Just as you and I have experienced some of them in the last few months.

Before I go on, I’ve talked about being conscious of my privilege on these pages before. And so I realise very keenly that my experience of all this is privileged too, because of where I am in my life, my career and my home situation.

For this next bit you can delete as appropriate…

Like many in their early/mid/late-40s, my wife/husband/life partner/pets and I decided to give up the hustle and bustle of South-East/South-West/South/West/North/East London/other major conurbation a few/couple of years back and move out to Kent/Hertfordshire/Surrey/Other home counties/Scotland. As a result we got a slightly/quite a bit/much bigger house with the space to make working from home quite pleasant/bearable/a magical Nirvana.

Some else’s perfect home set-up

Don’t get me wrong, lockdown has been super weird for me, as it has for you. But I’ve not been doing video calls from my bedroom in a shared house. I have some space to think, and to divide between work-life and home-life. I can even wander into my garden on a call. And quite apart from the practicalities of space, I’m also very aware of the more intangible things that I’m not missing out on, which others might be…

Imagine, if you will, a much younger man than the one I am today. Less beard, smaller clothes sizes. New to office life. Keen, confident; with potential but very raw. Someone in need of guidance; of people who believe in him to unlock that potential and pull him up on things when needed.

Would young Mr B [you guessed right, that young man was indeed me] have prospered working from home, from his messy bedroom in a shared house one the edge of Brixton? On video calls (which, let’s be honest, would have seemed like sci-fi back in 2000) which offer an odd kind of pseudo-contact followed by sudden quiet isolation?

Honestly, I don’t think so. 

At the earliest time, I was very fortunate to have some amazing people around me from whom I absorbed ideas, attitudes and skills. Seeing how people like Mike Walker approached a problem; how Melissa de Lusignan helped to solve it. How Elise Shepherd handled herself in a crisis; how Tara Page handled the clients. From that point on I’ve been surrounded by remarkable creative talent, passionate culture building, enlightened strategic thinking, and dedicated client management.

The person I was 20 years ago when I started in the world of advertising agencies needed to experience all of these things to learn. Hell, I still do, and have continued to learn from people right through – at all levels of seniority.

None if it is formal training or coaching, but informal watching, listening, questioning. Logging silently that next time I should maybe not do this but do that instead. Picking up a turn of phrase; a tone of voice.

Incidental coaching. Accidental learning. Essential education.

The office isn’t important. We’ve shown over the last 6 months that human connection between us can survive a lack of human contact. It’s not about the physical space we occupy, but more about the place we hold in each other’s minds, and yes, even hearts. I’ve long believed that the strongest organisations are those that really aim to build genuine, authentic, honest, human connections and this year has, I believe, continued to prove that belief to be true.

But for those early in their careers, the office is a place of learning that cannot be underestimated or effectively recreated in a virtual world.

And so as I look at the weeks and months to come, I must consider not only my own needs, based on my new experience of work, but also the needs of the younger me. As a leader, I have a responsibility to ensure whatever working world we create is one in which our young talent – the future of our agency and industry – have the opportunity to absorb, to learn, and to thrive, just as I did.

As I do, I have a feeling I’ll probably learn a few new things for myself, too.

What’s past is prologue…

It’s been a long time since my last post. To me, anyway. We all know that time sometimes go fast, sometimes slow, but it’s rare that this happens at the same time. But this summer, well. You don’t need me to tell you that this summer has been different, in every way. Days drift into weeks and February in an office in the middle of London seems not just like another time but almost another place, in another life we once had.

This has felt like a strange interlude – like we’re all living in the interval in the middle of a play: discussing what we made of how the first half went – which characters seemed the most plausible, which plot lines might develop – and waiting for the second half to begin when we can see how things turn out. Except we’re not just the audience, we’re also part of the play too: expected to know how to act and where to stand and what to say, even though we have never read the script and don’t know the plot.


Act One was all about reacting to this unknown something that forced us to change everything overnight and question everything. How to live, how to work, how to feed ourselves even. It was punchy and powerful, leaving us dazed and confused.

Act Two was learning to live with a new situation, settling down, understanding how this might work. Learning more about the unknown, too – how it might affect us and our loved ones; learning to understand statistics and judge risk. And it was about settling into some kind of solidarity through our shared experience. All in this together.

Act Three, just before the interval, was about conflict. Disagreement on what was right and what wasn’t. One rule for them, another for you. And then more conflict, even more visceral. Disbelief, disruption and demonstration. Tumultuous turmoil.

And then the interval.

From here, it’s about some kind of return to some kind of something which isn’t really normality but rather a new kind of normality seen through a distorted lens. It might look similar, but it will never be the same.

My own experience of the good and bad of lockdown is unique to me, of course. Yours is unique to you, too. But the next Act is coming, and just as this year has played with time so uniquely thus far, it will again, and now the bell has rung and the curtain is going to rise once again whilst you’re still grabbing one of those tiny ice cream tubs with a spoon in the lid.

So before the lights dim, just take a moment to look around. Remember the crazy time we’ve all gone through, good and bad, and consider what’s worked for you during this enforced performance and what you want to leave behind.

Because this feels very different to every other time, and if you’re one of the lucky ones with a job to go back to, and a company with a vision for the future, then for the first time in the history of people working in offices you might just be able to have a say in what part you might want to play from here.

What’s past is prologue; and what to come, in yours and my discharge.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest: Act II, Scene I

Double Down

My wife’s grandfather [not he from my earlier story – her other one. She’s lucky enough to have both grandfathers and one grandmother still around to drop a good amount of wisdom] once told me a story – possibly apocryphal, but no less of a story for that. As with all great stories, the subject was something each of us have a connection with in our own, unique way, which transcends time and connects us back to a place where we were more innocent… more carefree… more elemental.

Yes that’s right, we’re talking about ice cream.

The story went something like this…

It’s the mid-1970s, and in the small seaside town just down from the Garw Valley where the family lived in South Wales are two ice cream parlours. And in the ice cream trade, times are tough.

Because this isn’t the glitter-filled shiny 1970s of disco, platforms and Space Hoppers, this is the grey 1970s of economic struggle in underpaid mining communities, toiling to make ends meet between the three-day week and the Winter of Discontent.  Times are tough for everyone, but tougher still when you’re selling something as intrinsically non-essential as ice-cream.

The 1970s in South Wales

So, with ice-cream quite a way down on the priority list, one of the ice-cream parlours decides to do the prudent thing.

They cut back a bit.

They cut back on their local advertising. They put off the paint job they were going to do. They even start using some cheaper suppliers for the ice cream ingredients. Individually all small things, which people probably won’t notice, or perhaps even forgive as a ‘sign of the times’.

Except…

The other ice-cream parlour has another idea.

They double down.

They don’t advertise less, they advertise more. They do up the front of the parlour, repaint the chairs and tables out front and get some umbrellas in case of the sun or (because this is South Wales, remember) the rain. They source even better ingredients for their ice cream, from local suppliers wherever possible.

At every opportunity, they recommit to the service of their customers; double down on what an ice cream parlour should all be about. If it’s going to be an occasional treat, then let’s make it the best experience it can be.

You know the rest, of course. Only one of the parlours survived the tough times and came out the other side.

Now I’m very aware that this story is almost too perfect – like a fable almost. But hey, let’s not let the truth get in the way of a good story, right? [Did I mention I work in advertising?]

Times are tough, right now. We’re going into probably the biggest recession in living memory, with unemployment sky-high and well-known companies adding to the lay-offs every week. We may not have a 3-day week – if anything, working from home has blurred the lines of work & home more than ever – but make no mistake, this is going to be tougher than anything most of us have experienced.

And on top of our economic outlook, we’re right in the middle of a social shift too. Something that sparked from what we saw in Central Park and Minneapolis and enflamed in Bristol and London and every other part of the world. It’s not the first time the world has been rocked and shocked by racial inequality – even by police brutality – but this time does feel different.

Perhaps it’s because for the first time we’ve all had a shared collective experience of lockdown and isolation and fear, that now that’s translated into a shared collective determination to make a change in the world? Perhaps it’s just because it’s all been there, shot on shaky iPhone, for us all to see, our heads shaking slowly in disbelief? Perhaps it’s just because without the daily commute there’s more time and headspace for the daily trawl through the daily news? Wherever it comes from, this feels like a time of change.

Tough times. Uncertain times. No idea of what the times to come will look like.

So what are you going to do about it? Play it safe, or double down?

Double down comes from Blackjack – after seeing what you’ve got in your first 2 cards, you can double your bet and get one more card, so you have twice the money on the table and thus twice the winnings (if you do win, of course). Based on what’s in front of you, you can make a decision to take more risk with potentially a higher reward.

Apparently this is when to “Double Down” in Blackjack, but please bear in mind I know nothing about gambling apart from the fact that “the house always wins” (which I guess is the only one I really need to know in order to know I don’t want to know anything more about gambling)

And so in common parlance it’s taken to mean “to engage in risky behaviour, especially when one is already in a dangerous situation” (according to the Oxford English Dictionary).

But who decides what is “risky”? Perhaps now, like in South Wales in the 1970s, the risk lies in shadows: doubting, worried, holding back. Perhaps by doubling down on an idea, a belief, a course of action you believe in… perhaps this is about conviction and commitment; resilience and resolve. 

That’s an illusion of risk – something that seems risky or even reckless to the people on the outside, but only because they don’t know what you know, what you believe, how you feel, or how deep your commitment goes.

Consider what you have committed to – as an individual, as a group of people, as a company – and have no doubt that this is the time to recommit, to go even further and deeper.

If you have committed to being part of a group – whether that’s at work or outside – then this is the time to really, really be a part of that group. Give more of yourself. Be open, and brave, and authentically yourself, and get more out of it than you ever thought you could.

If you’ve committed to being a caring, thoughtful, open and honest leader or manager… go further. Push yourself to care more than you expected you’d have to – more than the people who work alongside you would have ever expected from you.

If you’ve committed to the belief that that culture and values can really mean something for your business, then recommit to that culture and those values being the most solid foundation possible for whatever you build out of the situation we’re in.

Times may be tough, difficult, strange, “unprecedented”. But it’s precisely because of that uncertainty that this is the time to work out what you really care about, what you really believe in, and double down. Go out and be the ice cream parlour with the fancy paint job and the delicious flavours, and the pride of knowing that you refused to go down without a fight.

Now, who wants to double down on a double cone 99 with sprinkles and raspberry sauce? I’m buying.

Now, more than ever…

Now, more than ever, in these difficult times, we are all in this together. In such uncertain times, we have to reset normal, be well, and now, more than ever, find a new normal. Because now, more than ever, we must stay strong and stay safe in what are (in case you missed it) unprecedented times. We’re here for you.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been drowning in cliché: soundbites that may have started with sincerity but seem less so every time you hear them, especially when they’re espoused by billionaire CEOs or massive multinationals. All trying to show they have heart, soul, and that most ethereal, most zeitgeist of brand essentials… a PURPOSE.

My colleague, collaborator and [dare I say it?] bloody good chum and all round top chap [ooh that was a little more than expected!] Mr Oliver Caporn wrote a blog recently (which you can find here – he’s very good) about how every single piece of consumer advertising is following the same exact formula (check out the film that proves this point here) and how actually, in searching for a way to show “purpose” when no one wants ads that say “buy more stuff”, consumer brands have actually ended up looking and sounding a lot like brands in healthcare used to look and sound (before they got a bit more sophisticated and less samey).

but now, more than ever, in these uncertain times etc etc

Working in healthcare marketing, as Olly and I do, the ‘purpose’ bit is a lot more simple as you might imagine, even in these difficult times. Our clients make things that, one way or another, are designed to help people. Whether that’s by developing drugs that actually save or prolong or otherwise change the lives of patients, or by creating cutting edge materials, products and services that enable laboratories to do some good science [did I ever mention I don’t have a science background?] they’re all there to do good, to help, to improve lives.

[I’m not going to deep into the “big pharma” argument here, but just to cover it off quickly: I’ve worked for the pharmaceutical industry in some capacity for the last 20-odd years and the vast, vast majority of people I’ve met have been genuinely committed to improving the lives of patients, not the bank balances of investors. I’m sure there are exceptions, and I’m sure some companies are better than others, and I know some mistakes have been made over the years… but I get a little tired of the negative press that pharma always, always fail to effectively counter. If you want to slag someone off, try cigarette or weapons manufacturers. Or Über of course – if you’re not sure why, listen to this podcast.]

So from a brand perspective, I think we probably know a good deal more about what purpose is all about, and how to talk about very general positive intentions without getting quite so generic and seeming so self-serving.

Which, of course, is precisely where the big consumer brands end up. Because as much as they want to be authentic, and say something nice, no one really gives a fuck if “Big Multinational Brand X have been here for you for X number of years and are still here for you, now more than ever, in these trying times”.

It’s self-serving because it’s just a desperate attempt to say something, to stay relevant when you’re just not.

“But we’re Nike – we need to have a POV about these unprecedented times”.

No. No, you don’t.

No one is buying new trainers, because we’re trying to survive a global pandemic. [Even me. And I bloody love trainers.]

And trust me, now, more than ever, no one is looking to huge multinational corporations for moral support.

But the desire to be relevant? That I do get. Because there’s no question that being an inclusive, emotional business leader in these crazy times is really, really weird.

How can you lead people anywhere if you don’t see them? Do people even really need leadership if that leader can’t really do anything practical to make things different or better? A leader can’t home school your kids, or sort your wi-fi, or get you to see your parents.

So what’s the purpose of leadership in these difficult times?

Well, it starts with showing the desire to double down on the things that can actually carry an organisation through such unprecedented times – intangible, uncountable and often overlooked things like shared values, belonging, togetherness.

Sometimes all this stuff gets called the “soft measures”. And it’s true, none of these pay the bills on their own. But when we come out of the far end of this [and rest assured, this too shall pass] trust me when I say that it’ll be the organisations with a clear sense of collective strength that do the best.

And the leaders who can come out of this into a new normal with the emotional integrity of the group perhaps even stronger than when they went in? Well, that would be something special.

With that aim in mind, it becomes crucial to really embrace the juxtapositions that are inherent in the concept of emotional leadership. To show resilience alongside vulnerability. To balance total honesty with credible optimism and hope. To be the cheerleader and the counsellor. To pull people together, and to push them on.

And, to do all that with an openness, transparency and authenticity that’s so obvious that it doesn’t matter if a couple of clichés get dropped in now and then because there’s purpose behind them.

None of this is about being in an office. It’s about enabling and then truly being part of something that doesn’t have to have a physical home, a neural network of people disparate in geography but united in their determination and connected by their values.

Soft measures my arse – these things are as solid as the big, brash, barren buildings we once made our way to every day.

People don’t need leadership per se, they need genuine, honest connections with other people. The leader is just there to help make that a possibility, a shared passion and a collective aim, and then get out of the way and let things happen.

That’s leadership with purpose, and that’s relevant not just in these unprecedented times, but always. The constant drive to be building something that doesn’t just exist in a building.

Hmm, that’s kind of catchy. Perhaps I might do an ad myself. I’m sure Nike are waiting to hear that now, more than ever, I’m here for them.

[Take care. Be safe. Stay inside. Stop touching your face.]