Newish things that haven’t made advertising better, part 4: The perpetually open office.

Back in the 1990s ad agency Fridays had a different vibe about them: people would come in at some point, often with a hangover from an elongated and inebriated Thursday, pretend to do some work until the earliest point at which they could reasonably head off to lunch. Then they didn’t really come back. Or they came back to an office that was almost empty, with any stragglers possibly just hanging around because they were in town and meeting friends nearby in the evening.

Yes: for most of us 1990s creatives Friday wasn’t an actual work day. I believe the same applied to the 1980s, but on a grander scale, with even less adherence to the notion of punctuality. (Gray Jolliffe, great creative and subsequent inventor of Wicked Willie, was once stopped by his managing director when sauntering into the office late in the morning. “Hey, you should have been here at 9 o’clock!” said the manager. “Why?” replied Gray. “What happened?”).

And it wasn’t just Fridays. Sometimes a slow Tuesday afternoon adjourned to the Carpenters, the Crown and Two or the Prince of Wales, where ‘work’ stopped, fizzy chat started and the world was put to rights. (I should probably add that this early exit wasn’t entirely confined to drinking situations; people might also have popped to the cinema, an art gallery, Selfridges, Comme Des Garcons, the Eurostar to Paris, or even home to spend a few more hours with their families. Crazy, I know!)

So the informal 4-day-week was an assumed thing. I think it still exists to some degree today, as staff are often allowed to leave the office a little earlier to beat the weekend traffic. But here’s the question: in 2019 do they ever really leave the office?

Email, Slack, shareable Google Docs and Keynotes, Workplace Chat, text messages, Whatsapp etc… As someone wiser than me once pointed out, you’re now in the meeting that never ends, during the 24/7 workdayweek.

Just for clarity I’d like to point out that there’s nothing wrong with working hard. And under the right circumstances (a good, well-organised brief in service of a decent product would be a start) long hours can be also be fine. I’d also say that most of the industry would gladly welcome the 8 hours x 5 days arrangement, as is amusingly suggested in their contract, with voluntary extra time on top.

So whether you’re checking your emails, ‘just’ taking that ‘quick’ call on holiday at the expense of spending time with the people who deserve your attention, or adding another ‘late one’ or weekend to your week’s tally, the job never really ends.

I’ve written before about how enough extra hours will eventually add up to another half-a-member-of-staff per year, per team – an additional employee that your company gets for free under the guise of ‘work hard, play hard’ or some such bollocks. Anyone who works long hours that aren’t their own ambitious choice is doing so because their bosses took on extra work without having to pay extra people to do it, and that’s a big expense off the books.

A friend of mine once took a job on the express understanding that he was going to do a real four day week (not a lazy Friday situation as described above) for 80% of his regular pay so that he could complete other projects he had taken on. To me, that would create a weird tear in the space-time continuum, where some part of the week was actually ringfenced to be entirely out of bounds to the account teams and project managers that simply can’t cope without 168 weekly hours of you. Sure enough, the ‘just this quick one’ messages started coming in on Friday mornings and spreading throughout the day because this deadline was close, or that director call couldn’t be missed. In the end he was simply doing his normal job for a 20% pay cut because trying to keep those emails and Slack notifications at bay is like being King Canute, sitting on his throne in front of an ever-encroaching tide.

And the really sad thing is you probably don’t even notice it. It’s now the water you swim in. The way things are. The status quo. And so it goes for 2019 lawyers, journalists, publishers, doctors and almost any job that’s eventually supposed to lead to decent pay and enough status to allow control of your own schedule.

But here’s the real kicker: that day will never come.

In fact, the higher you rise, the more demanding things get. So you’ll almost certainly be at the beck and call of some opportunity, client, or ’emergency’ to the end of your working days. Yes, it might be easier at the top because you can occasionally just walk out when you really need to, but I recall speaking to an old ECD of mine telling me that he literally remembers nothing of his youngest son over a particularly onerous two-year stretch.

When my first kid started to crawl it was mentally demanding: if I happened to turn around for a moment, when I turned back he could easily be on the other side of the room. So all I could really concentrate on was where Jackson was and whether that location was dangerous. And because we were new parents, both my wife and I took this task on. After a month or two I came up with an idea: I would take on the job for two hours, then my wife would take the next two. That meant that instead of being 90% on alert for four hours, we could be 100% for two, and 0% for the other two. The effect was amazing: we could actually read the paper, watch TV, go for walk or get some work done for a couple of hours. And even the babysitting time was better because we knew what our job was. Instead of being half-distracted and panicky, we could go to the playground and enjoy proper time with our son.

Long story, I know, but you can see where I’m going with it: when you perpetually have something going on in the background, whether it’s the need to answer an email, or the threat of the need to answer an email, or the possibility of an ‘important’ massage arriving just as you’re settling into a long-awaited date night or movie, or the possibility that the weekend plan you’re about to make will be upended by a last-minute pitch (and, by the way, the better you are at your job, the more ‘indispensable’ you become, so your reward for excellence is the extension and expansion of the nightmare. Hooray!), you can’t concentrate on or enjoy anything else. It’s like someone tapping you on the shoulder all fucking day; a kind of mental water torture. No wonder we lose people to other industries.

And no wonder the work is getting worse. It’s simple maths: if you preoccupy people on a constant basis, you give them no time to feed their minds with anything that might be useful to the creative process. And you give their subconscious no room to make all those little backroom combinations that bring forth creative solutions. And you add stress and bother to their days, increasing cortisol, which messes with brain functions including the all-important memory, which I believe is useful for helping people to remember stuff, and that might then be useful for having creative ideas.

And what are the benefits? Always being available to make sure someone can answer all those questions and make those adjustments that are so crucial to the success of a project? Again, we can always measure quantity, so you know the number of hours, emails, phone calls and meetings someone has attended, but there’s no way of clearly assessing the content of those interactions. Were they all successful? Were they all beneficial? Were all of them necessary? Were any of them necessary?

Which brings me back to the 1990s: no email, no text messages (except the Nokia 3310 ones that used punctuation to make it look like popping a bottle of champagne), far fewer meetings, no Slack, no shared docs but (altogether now)…

Somehow the work was better.