It was a Monday afternoon in the autumn of 2000. I was sitting in the back of Coffee Republic on Putney High Street. It was a time before ubiquitous coffee shop working enabled by wifi; that afternoon the number of pushchairs outnumbered the workers and their devices — which was basically me and my laptop.
A few months earlier I’d walked out of the gates of number 50 Lisson Street and said goodbye to my last proper job and a monthly pay cheque. I had set myself free, on a mission to rethink that four letter word: w-o-r-k. As I sat there with my espresso I cranked out a list of questions. Because I knew whatever happened next in my career, I wanted to reframe my work life.
And these are the questions I posed myself all those years ago: Why do we have to sit in grey office spaces to do our work? Why must we be defined by our job title? Why can’t we write our own job descriptions rather than have it dictated? Why can’t we wear more than one hat in our roles, rather than be boxed-in to do just one thing? Why can’t we have healthier relationships with our jobs, to avoid getting stressed and depressed at work.
These questions were based on my own experiences. I knew what made me tick, and I’d seen the friction between how I wanted to do my job and what I was expected to do in the office. Why couldn’t I just shape my career around who I really was? (and of course that’s what I’ve done ever since).
It’s been quite a journey since, but those questions and principles have remained a constant. Across all my work with organisations, teams and individuals, what gets me out of bed in the morning is a mission to make the world of work and business more human. Because these are the ten things that — still — really matter:
- Make workspaces more human. I’ve traveled around the UK a lot lately and have walked into a lot of different offices. I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. So why aren’t organisations better at creating workspaces where people feel optimised to do their best work? Space matters. You can’t plonk a human being just anywhere and expect them to do great work. But you don’t necessarily need huge budgets to spend on architects and designers, you just need an imagination. Earlier this year I ran a workshop at Rabble Studio in Cardiff (above). A little rough at the edges, but a space with heart & soul. High ceilings, lots of natural light, touches of personality.
- Step away from your desk. This is what frustrates me the most. Employers insisting employees do all their work at their desk. When I was working with a team of creatives recently, I suggested they get out of the office and go and explore the streets around them. They told me they weren’t allowed to. Why are we still shackling employees to their desks? Instead lets trust people to work where they work best. Let them explore and connect with the real world beyond the office walls.
- Gather your team. It surprises me when I meet teams that don’t spend time together (outside of meetings that is). If you want to nurture your team spirit, you have to get to know each other. I once worked in a small organisation; when I joined there were just twelve people. Twelve people is a good number to get around a table. So we had two rituals. Every Wednesday morning at 08:30 we all got around that table and shared what we were up to. And every Friday evening we got around the same table with bottles of wine, bowls of crisps and just had fun. Gathering was our glue.
- Create space to think. I feel for those executives whose days are full of back to back meetings and calls. How the heck do they get any work done? We need to liberate employees from meeting-centric cultures, we need to transform their calendars and create blank space. To create space for thinking, for head-down deep work, away from distractions. I know I’m lucky; one of the joys of working myself is to create days where I have *nothing* in the calendar. That’s gold-dust to me.
- Talk and smile to each other. I walked into a lift in a company’s building the other day and smiled hello to the others inside. I got some odd looks! It felt like that scene in ‘Crocodile Dundee’ where Paul Hogan says hello to strangers while walking down a Manhattan Street. In another company building, I was leaving at the end of the day and seemed to be the only person saying goodnight and thank you to the doormen as people flooded out of the lobby. And I don’t even work there! C’mon, let’s be friendlier to everyone else in the building.
- Bring joy and laughter into work. I think people work better when there is joy and laughter around the place. My legacy at my last proper job? Creating mock-up tabloid front pages with outlandish headlines every time a team member left their job; a tongue-in-cheek annual ‘awards ceremony’ complete with plastic Oscar figurines; office chair racing in the basement. We had a laugh, and it made a big difference.
- Go for a walk outside. Look out of your office window right now. You’re looking at the best ‘meeting room’ there is, and what’s more, you don’t even need to fill in a form to book it. Use it. Turn that one-to-one meeting into a walk and talk. Get outdoors at lunchtime. If you need some inspiration on a project, take your thoughts for a walk.
- Wander about inside. If you’re a manager it’s your job to walk around and ask how people are. That’s what leadership is; what Tom Peters calls MBWA (management by walking around). But some managers don’t bother. They stay in their office with the door shut. I worked with a small business that had two offices three tube stops apart; one was the HQ, the other a satellite office. Some members of the management team rarely visited the other site. And it was three tube stops away! No excuses…
- Count the things that count. Every organisation has systems and structures in place to track business and individual performance. There are targets, KPIs, appraisals, staff surveys. But are we also counting the things that really count, like happiness and well-being? In the late 90s I was a rookie managing director, responsible for growing a business unit. The business was growing well, so I was rewarded by having more ventures to look after. The trouble is, I had too much on my plate, I was struggling. I became stressed and depressed. There was a bunch of spreadsheets to track my financial performance, but no checks and balances for me. Until it was too late, and I became ill. That’s why running my own business I have more than one dial on the dashboard: alongside the spreadsheets, I track my Good Times at work (and out of work).
- Mash-up your work. Let’s be more flexible and allow employees to create roles that reflect their real selves. Sure 60% of the role will be doing the job that you hired them for. But if they’re interested — and talented — in other areas, why not let them carve out unique roles that mash-up different disciplines? (Check out my book “Mash-up!: How to Use Your Multiple Skills to Give You an Edge, Make Money and Be Happier” to discover the difference it can make).