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.

Checking my privilege

I am The Man. By that I don’t mean that I am totally ace in every way, because I’m totally not. I’m not going for a “You’re the man!” vibe. Rather, I am The Man as in “stick it to The Man”. Because on the face of it, I am the classic authority figure, crossing pretty much every box on a diversity list. 

Male, white, straight, middle-aged, middle-class, able-bodied, cisgender, neurotypical. Hell, I’m even privately educated. I’ve got a few mental health bits and bobs I’m bumbling through (more of that in a post in due course, methinks!) but on face value I am the establishment; an embodiment of The Patriarchy.

I am “THE MAN”.

Each one of those has got me some kind of advantage, in some way, big or small, that I didn’t earn in any way. All of it was just handed to me by nature or nurture. All of it is a privilege in some way.

I’ve always been aware of that privilege to a degree, but it’s not until I’ve found myself in more and more conversations around different areas of diversity that it’s been clear that I’m pretty much always in the majority rather than the minority. And on the whole it’s not the majority who get beaten down or overlooked or oppressed.

In Grayson Perry’s book “The Descent of Man” (read it, it’s good) he calls it “Default Man” – the ‘norm’ around which the world is forced to adapt.

That’s what privilege does for you. All of which sometimes makes for some interesting introspection. When you’re THE MAN, you’re the bloody problem – can you be part of the solution too…?

On top of that, there’s an interesting nuance to show that even if you don’t cross all the boxes, there might still be privilege, because it’s fluid and relative, as demonstrated by a story a good friend told me recently of his own experience.

He’s a highly intelligent and highly educated man who happens to be gay and decided to get involved in his work Pride event. At the first meeting, and for the first time in his life, he was faced with the idea that actually being a middle-class, white, gay man is a bloody breeze when you don’t have to layer on racial stereotypes or cultural expectations, or being transgender, or being disabled.

Suddenly “just being a gay man without anything else to worry about” was a privilege in itself: a new perspective, and one that was both surprising and humbling.

Cards designed by Fabiola Lara https://www.instagram.com/fabiolitadraws

Now, I’m hyper-aware of my privilege, across all the parameters outlined and probably a few more too. But rather than let it hold me back and be a reason not to have a point of view, I think it drives me on. Some of the advantages I’ve had have, in some way, got me to where I am today, with a point of view and a social conscience, outwardly confident, usually erudite (if a little verbose) and, now in my life and career, with something to say.

And so I believe I’ve got a responsibility – a duty even – to stand up and speak up. Because if I can’t speak up, with all the privilege I benefit from, then who can?

All any of us can do is be aware of our own privilege, and be respectful of the advantage that gives us. And, whatever privilege you have, use it for good if you can. 

Because from someone else’s perspective, there’s a good chance that you really are the lucky one.