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Flight Time magazine (FlyBe)

Long before the personal computer existed, or the Internet, or the swirling nexus that is the World Wide Web, offices were a big deal. Gunmetal typewriters as heavy as cinder blocks lined our desks, and office workers sat beneath clouds of their own cigarette smoke. There were libraries – libraries – positioned out of earshot of the rattle of typists at work. It was noisy, congenial, congested and with the birth of the computer, this Mad Men version of working life was destined to change – as Arthur C Clarke predicted in the 1960s:

“[Computers will] enrich our society. They will make it possible to live anywhere we like. Any businessman or executive could live almost anywhere on earth and still do his business through [a computer]. And this is a wonderful thing: it means you won’t have to be stuck in cities; you can live out in the country or wherever it be.”

But Clarke misjudged. While today the computer is our typewriter, our diary, our library – even our filing cabinet – Clarke failed to realise that the office is made of sterner stuff. It won’t go quietly into the night and nor will its greatest advocate: the office manager.

Very little has changed. We still trudge from home to our office in our corner of the world to sit behind a desk and mark time. Sure, the keys on our laptops are conspicuously quieter and the cigarette smokers are huddled together outside in the cold, but the office’s monopoly on the workplace persists – and it’s getting worse.

Today’s workspace is more truculently blind to the needs and wants of real people than ever. We’re starved of privacy thanks to open spaces and forced to get chummy in communal quarters; but it’s all for our benefit, they say. The irony is that most people head to the office early or stay late – when their colleagues are out of the way – to get work done. If the office is such a hotbed of creative thinking and ideation as the manager has us believe, why are so many of us putting in extra hours to get by?  

One explanation is that people are lazy and it’s far easier to demand that they come to you than to allow them to work where they please, especially as businesses grow bigger. Plus, having someone in your space is the ultimate form of control. Low level managers are groomed to not only enjoy hierarchy but to command strict control over their subordinates as they climb the corporate ladder.

This article will illustrate there are alternative ways to get work done. As the poet Robert Frost once wrote: “The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.” I subscribe to that view. Offices can be exciting, exhilarating places with great people but the old 9-5 under the hum of halogen lights is hardly the only way to work.

 

The irrelevance of location

“Traditionally, advertising agencies bring people together and work them around the clock to service clients,” says Ben Wren.

 

Wren is an advertising professional who worked at London’s top agencies before he packed his bags and headed for Cape Town. Here, he had the opportunity to test the hypothesis that you could run an agency smarter, and not rinse people of all their time and energy.  

Wren has founded Area 213 International with a small core team and a complement of freelancers. Most of Wren’s staff work remotely, and liberated from the role of chief whip in an office, he plays fair. “I don’t measure hours on timesheets or force anyone to work 9-5. I’d rather get quality work than scattershot output that took double the time.” Treating staff like adults motivates them. Wren says the only downside to a flexible workweek is people invariably don’t play by the same rules – they work overly hard.

“If you think about it,” Wren says, “hiring practises are totally warped. When you put an ad online you’ve got the world at your fingertips and yet we tend to only look within a 50km radius for talent. Your chances of finding someone good are exponentially lower.”

Wren doesn’t work from a traditional office because this, he says, is the biggest parasite on profit. And though it looks good to clients, there are smarter options. “I prefer to use co-working spaces when I want to network, or when I have clients to meet. You can rent a desk in the best-looking office in town for a fraction of the price it costs to run one of your own.”

Wren maintains that all you need are clients who buy into your vision of a world liberated by technology. “Skype, Google Hangouts and the like work wonders for clients who can’t meet in person.”

Today, Area 213 International services brands in Belgium, Australia, the US, UK and South Africa.

In London, I meet Kyle. He got married last year but hasn’t been on honeymoon because he spent his leave working on a big client assignment at the agency he was employed at.

Kyle describes a working environment in thrall to the meeting where staff from all corners of the office were routinely dragged inside a boardroom to take part in a joint discussion, which was then dominated by the loudest voices in the room.

Kyle, naturally introverted, felt all at sea.

Pressure and control were exercised by a Friday status meeting where work was examined in the public eye and often criticised by management keen to play hardball.

“I was working 60 hour weeks and still getting comments when I left before nightfall.”

Kyle got his break when he responded to a job listing in New Zealand. The ad wanted a local Wellington man to help finish a webzine but Kyle applied anyway, and when he received a polite rejection, offered to work for free.

The company acquiesced, and impressed by Kyle’s turnaround time and work ethic, offered him a full-time job he could take on from the comfort of his London flat. “I supplement my income with work I find on Upwork, or other freelancing sites.”

Banking on Banck

You might think that flexibility only works in creative environments like advertising. Surely the hard-nosed world of manufacturing would die if the 9-5 were to disappear. In that case, let’s turn our attention to the Toyota plant in Gothenburg, which transformed its fortunes by taking a critical look at the workday.

Like most companies, technicians at the Gothenburg plant were used to clocking in at the start of the morning and clocking out in the afternoon. In between they stuck to a rigid schedule which included an hour-long lunch and regular pit-stops at the coffee machine. They were leaving a trail of unhappy customers.

Recognising that people low on morale drag their feet, CEO Martin Banck decided not to mete out punishment, but to cut the working day by 2 hours instead – or 10 hours a week – while maintaining his employees’ levels of pay.

Cheered by this revelation, Banck’s staff worked doubly hard and productivity boomed. The mistakes were ironed out and the plant billed its customers 8 hours for the good work done.

“You might as well send your people home after 6 hours, they get nothing more done after that,” Banck notes.

The Netflix equation

Then there’s Reed Hastings, the maverick technology disruptor that has cinema producers and TV suits running scared.

Hastings’ first company was built to harness the tech boom of the early ‘90s, but it grew too fast. He was out of his depth -“I tried to fire myself – twice” – and when investors bought him out he got a first-hand look inside the eye of the bureaucratic machine.

Hastings realized that the best-laid plans don’t enhance creativity, but stifle creativity. He founded a company called Netflix – which started life by sending DVDs in the mail to paying subscribers – but crucially kept agility front and centre. Hastings understood that you had to adapt to survive. As the DVD industry collapsed and Blockbuster went bust, Hastings navigated the choppy waters and set sail for the world of online streaming. Today, the company is valued in the billions and employs 3,500 staff.

Every industry is beset by change. And when it is, a book of rules isn’t going to help. If you’re a staffer at Netflix, you’re given unprecedented freedom. There’s no limit to the amount of holiday you can take or the company credit you can rack up and there are no set working hours. Rules that in other companies are managed by entire teams are governed by a simple line: “Act in Netflix’s best interests.”

“The key,” says Ben Wren of Area 213 International, “is to treat your employees like entrepreneurs. Get people to value their time, and get them to start working proactively. They’ll govern themselves and the 1% will be weeded out. Offices are the very best way of encouraging inactivity and the 9-5 simply causes people to watch the clock and drag their heels more.”

The workday that governs our lives is roughly based on the Industrial Revolution, where labourers filled factories and necessarily had to be on site. And yet as technology enhances the potential to work remotely, office life is becoming more oppressive. More than ever, we’re making demands on our workers’ time, asking that they be attentive to mails after hours and never quite allowing people to switch off.

While money has always been equated with freedom, the more powerful commodity is time.

To Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, the employee giving his blood, sweat and tears to the job with average results is doing it wrong. “Sustained B-level performance, despite ‘A for effort’, generates a generous severance package, with respect. Sustained A-level performance, despite minimal effort, is rewarded with more responsibility and great pay.”

In the end, shouldn’t the modern worker be judged on the quality of the work produced and not the hours spent inside the office?

Note to the editor

Ben Wren’s advertising firm can be viewed here:
www.area213international.com

Reed Hastings’ meditation on work culture can be accessed here: https://www.slideshare.net/reed2001/culture-1798664

Martin Banck’s interview on Youtube can be watched here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJUEXPP0Hao&t=28s

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Edward Love

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