Monday, 30 August 2021


Advertising legend David Ogilvy said: “Men die of boredom, psychological conflict, and disease. They do not die of hard work.”

For much of my career I was an apostle of Ogilvy, a believer in the 24/7/365 school of martinets. I even designed a 24 hour training programme to see how people performed under that sort of pressure. Bill Gates says he never took a single day off in his ‘20s. (So that’s how he got so rich.) 

But I’ve changed my mind.

I’ve watched in mystification as people at work waste time. Most meetings last far too long and have no objective. I liked the story of the executive who held up a board at the start of each meeting which asked: “what is the point of this meeting?” Many meetings ended right there and then.

The pandemic and all those lockdowns have changed a lot. First we have learnt how to meet online – sometimes to good effect although the technical qualities of Zoom in particular leave much to be desired. Secondly we have, most of us, learnt how to work effectively from home.  Although is working from home all its cracked up to be? Divorce rates during the lockdowns rocked everywhere especially amongst newly-weds.  Domestic violence and narcissistic abuse also increased.

But it was Alice Thompson’s article in last week’s Times that interested me most. The re-examination of work patterns has led to strong support for the idea of a “Four Day Week” – you’d have been stoned to death for mentioning that in the 1970s. But in the 1970s we all had secretaries, there were no computers and the office was a low productivity club. Recent research shows that in a four day week more work actually gets done than in five days. Spain are examining it (although a four day week in Spain sounds suspiciously like an increase in working time), Iceland has trialled it (successfully), and in New Zealand Unilever are experimenting with it. 

But this is only the beginning. Why are we so hide-bound by old fashioned regimens? Increasingly with good wi-fi the idea of an extended “workation” is gaining support whereby executives decamp to the country through the summer to work and to relax beside a lake, the sea or up a mountain. In such a situation work becomes more like a hobby.

But what sort of “work” are we talking about? Most of this speculation relates to senior executives; not much point in an HGV driver sitting beside a lake thinking.  

We are talking about are the people who are currently suffering burnout (43% of all sick-days are currently due to stress and burnout). At Goldman Sachs working weeks of 105 hours are allegedly not uncommon. In corporate law firms an 80 hour week is a let-off.

The topic of work: life balance is contentious. A female tech executive once said she’d cracked this dilemma “it should be work; work; work”. On the other hand researchers from Cambridge University recently found the real aim for many was to work only one day a week.

Our issue is we have to make work more interesting, more rewarding and seeming to have more purpose. Old fashioned HQs more like cathedrals than offices belong to the past. Bosses who demand more for less the whole time need removing. 

If we can’t make work enjoyable we’re failing. And if we’ve learnt nothing from Covid other  than the need to be more civilised and more in touch with ourselves that’s OK. But a four day week would be a good next step.

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