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.