Fighting fires

When I was a kid, I watched my father [hi Dad!] walk into a burning building. I was maybe 8 I guess? Our house backed onto a farm and (so the tale goes) some local kids had been smoking in the barn in the evening and it caught fire. Next to the barn was a little cottage where an old lady lived, with a load of cats – like a dozen or something – and she had refused to leave the cottage before all of them were found and she couldn’t find one and “what if it’s still in the house??!!”…

My dad wouldn’t claim to be “brave”, I don’t think. I imagine he’d consider himself much too sensible for daft ideas like that [he reads The Times, for crying out loud] but on that evening [probably with an “oh for fuck’s sake” under his breath if I know him] he walked into the burning cottage to ‘convince’ the lady she really should think about making her way out of the building sometime soon if turning into a roast old lady wasn’t in her immediate life plans.

Anyway, you’ll be pleased to hear that he came out, jostling the old lady in front of him. You’ll be delighted to know that all the cats had, of course, left the cottage some time before, because as we all know cats only care about themselves. My old man [who, come to think of it, would have been younger then then I am now: what a mind fuck that is!] was coughing and his face was black from the smoke and soot and my mum was really cross with him which at the time I thought seemed a bit unfair, because, you know, he was a bloody hero and all that.

And then the fire brigade turned up and we got to watch them putting the fire out, and it was very late and very exciting and I think I got to wear a fireman’s hat [although I might have imagined that because I’ve watched too much TV in my life and that’s the kind of thing that happens in a montage at the end of a TV program about a fire isn’t it?].

My fake memory

Up to now, I haven’t had the opportunity to save an old lady from a burning building [although I did have my bravery tested once – perhaps one for another time!] but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had fires to put out in my own way over the years. Oh no!

Because that’s what leaders have to do, right? Solving problems, making things better, fixing things. Filling gaps, plugging holes, and “putting out fires” [See what I did there?].

To be honest, I’ve never really liked the phrase “fire-fighting” when talking about work problems. It feels too reactive to me, like you’re forced to jump from the hottest, most urgent thing to the next, constantly on edge, constantly turning to find something else threatening to burn out of control. And so I think the phrase actually makes things worse, somehow.  But I do get the association of course.

Because we know that, left unattended, problems are more likely get bigger and less easy to deal with, just like a fire, until they’re totally unmanageable. And because we know deep within us, through thousands of years of generations upon generations from our earliest times on our planet, that fire has huge power and fearsome energy. Not just in what it does – how it destroys all in its path – but in what it does to us as people.

Just like our ancestors before us, we’re drawn towards fire. It’s deep within us to fan it or fight it, and so all too often we find ourselves simply gazing into it, transfixed, lost in its dancing light.

Nature’s cimena

And just like fire jumping from tree to tree and house to house, the closest possible proximity in which we’re forced to work in our overstuffed offices mean than even the smallest spark can catch, and grow and draw people in to fan or fight or stand and gaze once again.

But as much as we are mesmerised by fire, no matter how wondrous and fearful we find it, what we tend to forget is that the following day the ashes hold only a memory of the fire that once was, and hold no one’s interest for more than a fleeting moment before the winds of time disperse them.  Every fire that ever was ended up as ash in the wind.

And so perhaps one positive thing that I’ve experienced through the maelstrom of Bloody 2020™ is that the forced virtual nature of work has meant that when problems do arise there’s more space for consideration.

I don’t mean there’s more time, of course; not when the line between home and work has completely blurred to the point that it’s not actually visible any more, and I’m working earlier and later than I have in many years because it’s not like I’m going anywhere, and yes it’s getting physically and emotionally exhausting, as the stark sharp split between the imitation intimacy of a video call and the silence when it ends is jarring in a way that as simple, social animals we were never designed to be able to comprehend so we feel somehow empty in the moment, like we’re mourning the human connection that felt so real just a few moments before… [shit, sorry, where was I?]

No, I mean that there’s more physical and emotional space between us – space between the trees, if you like, so fires don’t spread so inexorably. With a watchful eye, some even die out all on their own.

Because with that space, people can consider their actions and consider what they might have done differently. The shared experience of lockdown and everything that’s gone with it means there’s more space for considering what someone else might be going through as well.

And so it seems people find it harder to hold a grudge from afar. People realise that they miss each other, individually and as the office buzz in the background as they work.

Starved of the oxygen of incidental interaction, disagreements become distant, irritations become irrelevant, niggles become nothing. And thus the flames of conflict are dampened, free to fizzle out naturally, quietly, simply.

There’s a lovely quotation I saw recently from a French writer/Aristocrat which goes:

L’absence est à l’amour ce qu’est au feu le vent. Il éteint le petit, il allume le grand.

Roger de Bussy-Rabutin

Which (as I’m sure you know) means:

Absence is to love what the wind is to fire: it extinguishes the small, it inflames the big.

I think that’s true, not just of romantic love but also of the companionship we all miss from our working relationships. The wind of absence has made the ones that were important to us before even more important now.

But perhaps the very same wind can blow out a lot of little fires of little inconsequential problems, too.

All without a fire-fighter to be seen…

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.

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

Why this, why now?

I’ve always loved writing. When I was a kid, I read everything I could get my hands on, and then when I’d read everything I wrote stories and collected interesting quotations. When I was a teenager, I wrote poetry (of course). When I was in my twenties, I wrote a whole novel (which I only ever showed to one editor because they didn’t like it and I didn’t like them not liking it – not exactly JK Rowling levels of thick skin and determination).

And I’ve always been fascinated by the power of words. The power to move people, to support or cajole or challenge. To connect and to divide. To rise up or crush down.

Over the last few years, my own words are something that have started to bring more responsibility too. Whether that’s presenting to my clients about brand strategy or creative, talking to the agency about our values and vision, coaching or mentoring individuals to be their best, or (increasingly) talking to large groups of strangers about gender equality and building an inclusive workplace… my words have some of their own power of influence too.

Speaking at WACL Gather in May 2019 (picture ©BronacMcNeill)

It occurs to me that pretty much all of the people in the above groups kind of have to listen to me whether they want to or not – be that through politeness or payment. But you don’t have to read any of this, so if you’ve got this far I reckon you’re doing pretty well already.

Here I’m going to be using my words to try to make the world of work and life a better place. At heart I’m a dreamer and an optimist, and that has its strengths and weaknesses – all of which will be on these pages somewhere, asking questions and challenging on how we take things forward.

I’ll be blogging about things that make me want to speak up, but only things where I’ve got a perspective or something to add. None of us need more words about some certain subjects. I’m interested in asking questions and giving food for thought – how can we build truly inclusive working environments where people can be their best and do their best work? How can a shift towards modern masculinity improve the lives of both men and women? How do we turn the theory of all this into practicality?

Through doing this, I’d like to give people pause to think, and perhaps some positive ideas to take forward. If I can connect with some like-minded people then that would be great too.

Please note, there’s a decent chance I might swear a bit here and there, so if that’s not your cup of tea then I apologise in advance and suggest you quietly look away as I take the opportunity to shout #$@&%*! at the absolute top of my voice.

So without further ado, you’re reading, I’m writing… shall we?