Rory Sutherland on work culture
Rory Sutherland is the Vice Chairman of advertising group Ogilvy.
Through his 30 years in the media industry he has become renowned for championing the use of behavioural economics. Rory is an author and regularly writes for The Spectactor.
- We’ve barely changed anything about work in response to technological advance
- 90% of what you can do at work you can now do at home “so you have to ask the question ‘what is the office now for?’ The answer really comes out as two things: meetings people by prearrangement and meeting people by accident”
- Email creates a layer of shallow work that is easy to do but achieves very little
We started talking about the challenge: why hasn’t work improved in the last decade?
RORY SUTHERLAND: I think what you realise is that there are an awful lot of behaviours which exist not because they’re beneficial but because they’re stuck. An example I’ll give, I came here by cab from Charing Cross, and paid by credit card contactlessly. All the cabbies – although they’re mostly pretty grumpy – they all admit that since every cab’s accepted credit cards the use of cabs has gone up noticeably because it just changes the whole thing. If you think about it it was getting to a point where a cab was your largest ever item of cash expenditure, wasn’t it? You needed 50 quid in your wallet. The simple reason you needed to have that 50 quid was in case you needed to take a cab.
Or you didn’t want to have that argument with the cab driver about asking him to stop at a cash machine.
RORY SUTHERLAND: I used to work with someone who was weirdly embarrassed about it they just wouldn’t do it. And I supposed there’s the fear that if your cash card fails.
I think you have that argument once though, once you’ve had one bad one. One who goes crazy you just can’t be bothered can you? You’d rather at two in the morning, you’d rather walk two streets down to get money out than risk the argument.
RORY SUTHERLAND: And you don’t know how much the damn journey is going to cost when you get in either. There are a whole lot of these you know. There’s a reason why McDonalds charges you up front rather that the end of the move, which is that if you’re cash constrained people don’t like paying for something at the end. Of course it until you make it mandatory and everybody adopted the new behaviour – accept credit cards – there was no incentive for an individual driver to do it. Because he’d get all the costs and none of the gains. I think a lot of new work behaviours will require some sort of jolt or intervention because if you’re the only person who works from home you’re immediately ‘the lazy guy’. Actually you notice – particularly among people who live outside London – the frequency of working from home is pretty high. Any station car park in commuterville, Fridays, it’s a third empty. The same car parks which are difficult to party in on a Tuesday… So it’s going on but there’s a certain level of shame around it which is ridiculous . I would argue that the biggest shame is going into an office and then emailing rather than talking to people – it should be a more embarrassing behaviour than going home to do your email.
I was reading something about Social Physics the other day. His whole thing is that we’re very familiar with using the IQ as a measure of an individual’s intelligence. But you can also look at organisational intelligence in the same way – system thinking – and it’s the interactions between people. He says face to face interactions are are the most powerful thing that you can have. And effectively he says we’ve orchestrated this world where we’re communicating via email or communicating via a video conference thinking it’s a proxy for face to face. And I was struck by the thing that you and I were talking about, the thing that you said: you come into work and you don’t do emails at work.
RORY SUTHERLAND: Yeah. No I mean the reason for that is that I suddenly realised… Younger people don’t know any different.
I mean at least you and I had a bit of experience of the working environment pre the Technological Revolution in that you had to come into work to make a photocopy, you had to come into work to produce a document, to produce a presentation.Actually my desktop was all I had, I didn’t have a laptop the first few years, send a telex, even making an international phone call – you basically came into the office to do it because it cost twenty nine quid and you didn’t want that on your unitemised phone bill. And so the office fulfilled a lot of functions. And once you left the office there was a limit, other than working with pencil and paper and just generally thinking, there was a limit to how much work you could do. Now 90 percent of what an office used to be for is just as available at home. Assuming you have reasonable broadband, it’s pretty much just as available at home as it is at work. So you have to ask the question ‘so what’s the office now for?’. Let’s strip it down to its absolute core function because it isn’t photocopying. The answer really comes out as two things: meeting people by prearrangement and meeting people by accident. And the problem I always notice is that when you’re doing email you’re not meeting people by accident because it’s a fundamentally anti social behaviour. You’re essentially doing it in one place, what would be better done somewhere else because there’s no comparative advantage to doing email at the office. There is a comparative advantage to wandering around and chatting in the office. And actually creating a bit more idleness would be a plus. Let me just explain… in the old 1980s Adland there were quite a lot of period – particularly in the creative department – but to be honest everywhere there wasn’t much you could do. You put something into the studio and you were waiting for it to come out. The photography had been done and you were waiting for the first retouching to be done or whatever. All those things were created a kind of enforced downtime. The enforced downtime was mostly wasted as all these things are. But then it was wasted in a way which was a highly special kind of waste which is that okay 80 percent of it is wasted. But 20 percent of it turned out to be really valuable. You’d have conversations which otherwise wouldn’t have happened. And it occurred to me that email really unfortunately soaked up all that are unenforced time so discretionary time disappeared. Because email – not because it’s important but because you’re terrified you might be important, on average it’s never very important, if something really important comes in my PA says ‘you’ve just got an important email’. But because you’re actually terrified that if you’re away for your desk for five minutes you’ve missed something that’s vital, what email does it’s a kind of attention vampire. Just as the mobile phone to a degree is an attention vampire. When you go out to dinner with friends there’s no point to go to dinner with friends and look at your phone. I think we’ve all got to relearn this stuff because the technology arrived so fast there was no time for etiquette or practices or behavioural rules to emerge around it.
Email seems to be the worst possible thing, it expands to fill the time available. So you’ve got five minutes you can go into your inbox and you can rattle out a couple of simple binary responses. If you’ve got two hours then you read the email six times you go over it…
RORY SUTHERLAND: It soaks up absolutely any amount of time. It’s also worth remembering that the quicker you respond it breeds. So there’s something about it which is almost dysgenic.
So the bottom line is the less important the email, the more people it’s copied to. The easier it is to respond to, because it’s trivial you respond faster.
So rather like Francis Goldman’s book on eugenics – I’m not here taking up some weird right wing stance in favour of eugenics. But the worst e-mails breed, in that they have more children and they breed at a younger age. So the worst emails drown out the more important emails very rapidly. Of course the faster you respond the more you’re contributing to this because generally people find it easier to respond to trivial things and hard to respond to important things. So there’s a kind of a reverse prioritisation which then takes effect. It’s actually a terrible form of communication in many ways because also we don’t really have a meter in our heads for how much we’re accomplishing. I’ll give you an example of this which I find very strange and very interesting. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a customer service encounter where you use live chat rather than speech? Now the strange thing is that it actually takes a hell of a long time but you don’t mind. Because you’re sort of getting on with other things or watching TV while it’s going on. You still use your computer. You’re not forced to hold the telephone to your head. So strangely we’re really satisfied with live chat even though to solve a problem live chat would probably take 10 minutes where on the phone it would take three. And I think in the same way because email makes us feel busy, I don’t think we realise how inefficient and time consuming it really is. I I had a bit of a rant because WPP changed the email system worldwide and one of the things that annoyed me is they did no testing beforehand. I said ‘look, multiply this by 70000 people doing email for several hours a day’. One dumb thing about email, the fact that for example after you’ve replied to email you still have to separately delete it or archive it. Gmail – which we had previously had a button you could add which was reply and archive.
Which is a delight isn’t it?
RORY SUTHERLAND: It was an absolute delight.
If your inbox is your To Do list. Which it pretty much is.
RORY SUTHERLAND: Also by the way there also should be things like pause buttons on email, snooze buttons which is ‘make this go away until six o’clock this evening’. ‘I don’t need this shit I want out of sight’. But a tiny little thing like that. Multiplied by 70000 people, multiplied by 365 days. You suddenly have a monumental loss of efficiency and effectiveness. And yet it was considered okay to change the email platform in a large company without doing any testing on what was actually efficient.
Yeah I couldn’t agree more. A friend of mine has just gone to another company and she said ‘we’re on Microsoft Outlook here’ and it’s a consideration that I wouldn’t even have thought of but I thought yeah that would be like two hours worth of extra stress a week for me.
RORY SUTHERLAND: What’s particularly bad is the fact that we confuse what’s urgent and what’s important. The fact that when you have this thing that effectively soaks up discretionary time it reduces all those accidental encounters which modern architecture is designed to create. You know I’m a sceptic about open plan. I actually think that to be honest it’s adopted because it’s cheaper. You can fit more people in. Whenever they attempt to do real measurement of its effects it’s mildly negative. I’m not that bothered by external noise but there are some people for whom it’s a real problem. Nonetheless I do accept there is an upside to open plan offices which is that you bump into more people by accident. One of the best places I can sit is not at my desk, it’s at the cafe downstairs because everybody walks past.
Although I think that’s different because if you look at the evidence for open plan. Open plan people tend to interact less with people around them because they’re in this constant state of interruption. So what you’re saying going to sit in the café, I completely agree. That would be the benefit of being in a confined office space you then go in interact with people. But open plan generally most of the evidence says that the only saving grace for open plan is that it’s cheaper.
RORY SUTHERLAND: It’s cheaper. Yeah.
I mean fortunately I actually prefer a mild level of background noise. I don’t need affects me that much. I’m also not generally having conversations which are confidential which is by the nature of the beast. But I think I think it’s one of those cases where it surprises me how little attention is paid to this because there tends to be the assumption that what people do if left to their own devices is optimal. And I know of behavioural science to know that there are things which effectively hack your brain. I mean email I would argue – mobile devices to some extent – have many of the properties of an addiction. Interestingly just as while it’s your day job, I’d accuse Twitter of be mildly addictive. But it’s probably the least time wasting of all the addictive media. First of all there’s no obligation to respond to anything you see tweeted because the default assumption is you may not have seen it.
It’s much more like a company noticeboards than it is like an email platform.
Although all media has being designed to increase your consumption hasn’t it? Whether it’s the newspaper adding a crossword or newspaper adding new sections. Historically adding more to what could have been a very simple list of the day’s court announcements. Adding those things…
RORY SUTHERLAND: Mobile things undoubtedly have that property of addiction which is that you feel an increasing sense of loss or losing out as time progresses. There’s an element of compulsion around it. The interesting thing is that what we forget is that the great dream – I think it’s in one of the very early books by Canadian writer, Douglas Copeland – which is that the early dream, the whole dream of Silicon Valley ultimately was to made geography irrelevant. So that where you were didn’t affect what you could do. It’s a dream which has been pretty much accomplished. I’ve got British Gas Hive – which brief advertising plug – I love, it’s a fantastic product. And I turned my central heating on from Sydney Airport briefly just because I could. My children who have grown up with this technology thought I was being weird but to me it was still magical. You could sit it on the other side of the world and briefly cause a boiler – apologies to any environmentalists – cause a boiler to fire twenty two thousand miles away. I did turn it off very quickly after I promise.
Now the downside of that and there’s always a downside. I think one of the advantages of being a bit old is you realise that contrary to what do you think when you are young when you believe things absolutely. When you get a bit older you realise that everything is a bit of a trade off. There’s an upside. If you’re lucky it outweighs the downside but there is always a downside. The downside of that achievement is that previously what we focussed on depended on where we were. So when we were in the photocopier room we focussed on photocopying. When we were in the pub we focussed on chatting to our friends. Different places only allowed you to do one thing so that was what you did. And you did it with the whole of your brain. And the problem of being able to do everything everywhere is that you don’t concentrate on what activity has the greatest comparative advantage at any one time. E.g. I’m in the office so I think emailing people will be a bit dumb because I can that after the kids go to bed. Instead you just do what seems most pressing to you wherever you are. That might be Candy Crush, it might be Twitter, it might be Facebook, it might be email among work obsessed people. Sometimes those restrictions which used to be applied by geography, probably need to be replaced by writ. So I noticed that I think it was Daimler Benz in Germany have a policy that when you go on holiday your emails switch off. There’s auto reply. You don’t get any of your emails. You’re presumably contactable in an emergency but they realise that people need a proper holiday and so the whole thing basically goes to off. I used to spend an hour of every day on holiday at least maybe two doing email. Simply because I couldn’t face getting back to a thousand of things. Sainsbury interestingly as a company have a policy, there are no internal meetings on Friday. They lock the meeting rooms. Actually I think we probably need to pose some artificial restraints simply to regain that level of focus. That used to be provided by geography or location or context and now no longer is.
I think the interesting thing there is that we’re not even experimenting with it are we? So back to what you said before that a lot of principles of work that we’re not really challenging. One of those things in the Social Physics book he said that what they found is that in a call centre – so an artificial environment but an environment actually that’s very suited to measuring the impact on productivity of changes. And one of the things they found is that if you put a team to go on a simultaneous break their speed in resolving queries afterwards improved by 15 percent. And it was because their interactions, the stimulus really helps.
RORY SUTHERLAND: And that is where psychology and engineering diverge isn’t it? Engineering would say you need to stagger the breaks. Psychology would say ‘you’ll get no camaraderie, no information sharing.
Yeah I think they said the benefit of being a vast call centre is if you got 3000 people that sometimes there’s is enough cover in specific areas. It didn’t mean that you said ‘phone back later for that part’. So you could test it. But it was just fact that they were interacting with each other. Number one having a proper break. Number two interacting with each other. The net result was more productivity. We don’t really experiment at all with how work words.
RORY SUTHERLAND: And I think there’s a danger, one of the most important things you reference which is undoubtedly true is that working very very hard… first of all the benefits actually flatten off. Then you reach a point where it’s in fact negative you become worse overall because you’re not adequately rested. I’d also argue you become worse if you don’t take breaks. A very simple way I think I can prove that interestingly which is that I do a lot of cryptic crosswords. When I’m not doing email on the train. And one of most extraordinary things you notice when you do cryptic crosswords you’d be completely stuck. And you go to make a cup of tea and wander off and you come back and six of them fall into place immediately. It is really really important. In other words you become frame fixated I think. Without the break you are absolutely convinced that the word d-o-e-s in the cryptic clue means ‘does’. And you’re completely baffled because it looks like the answers deer. There you go and have a cup of tea and you come back and you realise that ‘does’ in this context means does [female deer] rather than does. Obviously the brain defaults to does. And you realise that the surface of the clue is actually does not does and therefore deer is a perfectly valid answer and you write it in. But without the tea break you would be stuck staring at it convinced that it says does.
Did you ever read that remarkable book. It’s like a 1936 book by James Webb Young.
RORY SUTHERLAND: A Technique for Producing Ideas
It’s like the best three pounds you could spend on Kindle. I mean it actually was quite a nice little old tiny little pamphlet. But this whole thing is you know and a million people have reached the same conclusion. An idea is created by two adjacent ideas coming together. And normally the production process is you spend a lot of time thinking about it and then you go away and allow the ideas to ferment.
RORY SUTHERLAND: You almost have to trick yourself into doing it. I notice that it’s always interesting that in fact Archimedes had the idea stepping into the bath. Not while he was sitting in the bath because when you are in on the line between one state of action and another one tends to be while you’re making that flick getting off a train for some reason you know have strange little moments which seemed to be hugely productive and enjoyable. It is almost that you’re training your brain into letting go of the usual straitjacket of assumptions that it’s brought to bear and whether that jacket briefly falls off that’s when you suddenly have some sort of creative insight or or magical leap.
Yeah certainly. And so on the subject like reinventing work and thinking of different ideas. I remember an article that you wrote on a blog or Campaign a few years ago which is like the idea that Ogilvy should switch down to a four day week.
It was I think it was you were talking about the spirit of David ogleby there’s a bit of me certainly certainly asked the question very simply because the idea him of an agency must have made an absolute fortune over the years from selling laptops on broadband with a photograph of someone basically using a laptop next to a lake.
And that promise of the technological revolution hasn’t really been delivered in reality. My argument is if we’re not changing our behaviour or at all in response to technology what was the point of inventing it. The most significant technology is – in effect – visible from the air. Patterns of work don’t seem to have changed much since you know 1980. I think one of the areas we must be paying for is different rail pricing and different transport price. But what I think happens is there is a better alternative but we can only get to the better alternative for fuel move simultaneously. And the example I gave earlier about taxis accepting credit cards is a classic case which is that even though they’re pretty grumpy all taxi black cab drivers now admit that since it was compulsory to accept credit cards business has gone up quite dramatically palpably. One of the major competitive advantages that Uber had has been eliminated at a stroke. The problem which is what economists call a coordination problem which is that if you as an individual cab driver accept credit cards you get all the costs of accepting credit cards (the tax position etc).
But you got all the downside the hassle of accepting credit cards and mean small equipment and they get the Games only come when there’s some critical mass of cab drivers probably all of them in this case who are obliged to accept cards. So I think it’s the same thing that there is a new possible new working behaviour that could be adopted. The problem is is that the first people to try to adopt it will get the costs but not the verification. So is working from home on love. In many cases you’re more productive. You certainly save a very large amount of time each day not farting around. It might not be bothered to get dressed but I work for I sometimes have basic bodily hygiene goes hang for that. But the problem is is that if you’re the first person to adopt the new behaviour you become the lazy guy. If you’re not careful and there’s a very very strong conformist streak of is in business still. And ultimately it worries people because it probably is really down to a lack of trust. You know you should start by hiring people who are self-motivated. I would argue that when people work from home – because they feel a little bit guilty about it – they overcompensate and actually produce more. But there’s something there that’s lacking which is preventing businesses from making that change. So you know I don’t think I can come up with the perfect answer. I wondered about an answer which is that you actually restrict email responses to set hours of the day for example. Certainly productivity gurus have said that the single best thing you can do technologically to improve productivity is to reduce the frequency with which your email client checks for new email.
So if you got the option of turning ‘check every five minutes’ down to ‘check every hour’. That’s a really significant change you can make because otherwise what happens is the most important email is the one that just happened to come in. Think about it if your postman came every time you got a letter it wouldn’t be a good thing it would be a bad thing. The great thing with the postman he comes once a day. I have a bunch of letters, I can look at the envelopes and prioritise them pretty rapidly into everything ‘open now’ to ‘don’t open ever’. And that takes four minutes of every day. I’m never burdened by the information overload occasioned by my postman. Funnily enough in the Victorian Age a London postman would come about five times a day but if the postman was coming literally 20 times a day you’d have to get up and look every damn time you heard the letterbox go. That isn’t a good thing. That’s a bad thing. So I think getting from here to there is one of those things which we’ll need to carve a path. I wondered about saying ‘here are 10 productivity rules, please choose which 4 you want to adopt’ and adopt them. I think unless people have heuristic, easy to follow rules the problem is that this problem won’t go away.
I saw something in the US which is the Results Only Work Environment and weirdly Best Buy tried it. It’s not like a trendy Silicon Valley company doing it. It’s just autonomy played out to the extreme. And they say when they encourage you to do the Results Only Work Environment, which is where your boss agrees with you ‘this is what you’re going to accomplish’. So I guess it’ll be a weekly, monthly and quarterly basis. And after that do whatever you want. And they say they have to do a substantial sessions at start about ‘sludging’ which is where they stop you trash talking other people’s working hours. Because other people’s working hours might be that they they work… They had one person an extreme person who was studying and then doing all their working hours in the evening. It’s an extreme and a hard one for a lot of businesses to consider.
RORY SUTHERLAND: Best Buy. Is this in the office environment or the retail environment?
This is their headquarters – about three thousand people are doing there. The end the impact is that the retention went up – the people leaving went down by 90 per cent, satisfaction at work improved, sick days reduced and it’s largely because they said ‘this is what you have agreed to produce for us’.
RORY SUTHERLAND: There’s a proof thing here which is sick days in the UK are dropping quite dramatically. And if you like it’s proof that a certain amount of work can be done from home because a day that would previously have been taken as a sick day is now a day where someone says ‘I’m not coming in today but I going to work on this presentation’. But then generally I mean the most extreme being extreme diarrhoea. The problem isn’t that you can’t work, it’s that you can’t leave the house. There are occasions where you can’t go to work it’s simply because if you have some stomach bug it’s ‘I can’t make the journey, guys’.
There are questions where you have a bad cold where I don’t want people coming into work when they’re a bit ill anyway. It’s disgusting. I’m a bit Howard Hughes about that. I love the story about Howard Hughes, he’d hang up the phone on anybody if they sneezed or coughed. He was so germophobic. Even if somebody coughed over the phone he’d immediately put the phone down. I’m a little bit Howard Hughes, I really don’t like people snuffling around me. I’d rather not take the risk. Sick days are falling very dramatically because what used to be taken as a sick day is now working from home. That’s proof that there’s some way to travel with this. What we also don’t in a lot of modern work environments we don’t actually know what’s productive or not so people just respond by working very hard . If you look at craftsmen they don’t tend to work insane hours because they can actually see they’re doing. And they know what their output is. In an office environment where to be honest an awful lot of it is bullshit. The best way to demonstrate you’re valuable to the organisation is by putting in hours because it’s the only form of signaling there it is. Now one of the things I think is interesting to ask is if you look around an office and you ask yourself a very cynical question which is ‘of every person around me how many people are engaged in what is genuine economic value creation and how many people are engaged in arse covering?’
Where arse covering might be just being present.
RORY SUTHERLAND: Of course arse covering might be just being there looking busy. Arse covering is often easy to mistake or disguise as rigour as well. I worry sometimes that quite a lot of market research is really done, not for the illumination that it brings, but essentially to defend people from personal consequences if what they’re engaged in goes wrong. One of the problems about fear that kind is it’s a huge restriction on imagination because it’s I often use this phrase of presentations whereas it’s much much easier to be fired for being illogical than it is for being unimaginative. I’ll give you an example of this at Ogilvy Change we call it the Heathrow Effect which is a kind of tragedy. I don’t know if you’ve flown to New York on the London City flight? It’s fantastic. I mean you go from this tiny airport you check in 20 minutes beforehand or 30 minutes beforehand. It takes about four minutes to board the plane. You clear customs in Shannon. It’s a brilliant little service but it’s now gone down from two flights a day to one. This guts me. What going on here? Because in terms of utility particularly how close it is to the city. You think that a small plane of 48 seats connecting the city of London. You clear customs in Shannon. You get off and go through customs. You clear American customs while the plane’s refuelling it can’t take off at London City with a full load and a full tank of fuel. On the way back it’s fine you just come straight in. But it can’t take off from City fully laden. Shannon’s incredibly beautiful and you just make a few phone calls, take your luggage through customs, reboard the plane. I was wondering why is this failing? And the reason isn’t because of individual preference of the passenger I don’t think. I think what it is is that if you’re a PA or a travel agent you’ll never get fired or blamed for doing the boring thing. So the default is book him out of Heathrow into JFK. Why? Because if you book Heathrow-JFK it may not be optimal for the guy at all. But if anything goes wrong he’ll blame British Airways. If you do something eccentric and book him out of London City or Gatwick or whatever. If anything goes wrong he might blame you. So the more we disguise our decisions as non decisions it’s what is why huge committees exist… it’s to give people the confidence of feeling that they won’t be held solely accountable for a decision. It’s effectively burying accountability so that you distance yourself as far as possible from the consequences of your actions. It reaches its apotheosis in bureaucracies and heavy bureaucracies where the only thing in a very bad civil service environment it’s simply a rule ‘don’t cock up: job for life’. You know I’m being very unfair but the worst manifestations of bureaucracy undoubtedly create that kind of thing. So what it creates is a culture. Gerd Gigerenzer – a brilliant German psychologist calls it ‘defensive decision making’ where you just do the safe thing because the brain’s quite heavily calibrated to ask the question ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’. Actually what’s the worst that can happen with Heathrow-JFK is the plane’s cancelled, he gets grumpy with British Airways. What’s the worst that can happen if I book him from London City he shouts at me. I live vastly closer to Gatwick. My P.A knows this. Fortunately she’s very good but every time you ring our company travel agent and ask for flights to the States. You just get a line. Ogilvy New York is vastly closer to Newark. I live closer to Gatwick or London City but you just get the standard Heathrow option. Heathrow-JFK. Newark’s in many ways is better than JFK actually. The only reason people use JFK is Americans who have New Jersey snobbery. But it’s one of those things where you go with the default option because the default option may be highly suboptimal but it has a lower chance of catastrophe. And I know a lot of behaviour a lot of business behaviour is conditioned by this. Don’t do anything weird because the second you put your head above the parapet you’re in the firing line.
So part of the problem, we’ve created a rather fearful business culture. It’s very much a case where capital not labour has the whip hand and all manner of things from technology to immigration to outsourcing to offshoring have all driven this same trend. And so workers – I’ve suddenly become a Marxist unexpectedly – but the workers don’t have the confidence to innovate under those conditions. Defensive decision making is – as Gurt Gigerenzer explains – is very very prevalent in medicine. In other words the doctor knows that you can get sued for inaction much more easily than you can for action. So it leads to excessive intervention in medicine. ‘Well I’ll put this person in for this exploratory operation because hell there’s just a 1 percent chance it’s something serious’. The operation itself carries a degree of risk. But let’s face it I can’t get sued for this. I’ve handed over to consultant – it’s someone else’s problem. Whereas if I say look to be honest if you just go home, wrap up warm you’ll be fine in three days…’ Over prescription of antibiotics for kids I’m sure is absolutely rampant because of the same effect. So it is worth remembering that there are a lot of biases that mean that we do the same things as everybody else and we do the same thing we have always done because it doesn’t arouse much comment. But my contention is, the great thing about being Vice Chairman I suppose if I can’t be perverse nobody can. I’ve been there for 30 years so they assume I’m not going to whizz any minute. They don’t assume when I’m out of the office I’m seeing some head-hunter or something because I don’t even know any, I’ve worked in the same place for so long. Also Ogilvy a has a very long tradition of promoting from within. People either staying for a long time or leaving and then coming back. So there is a form of social capital at Ogilvy because of that longevity. Whereas if you’re in that kind of business where the average person stays three years the game changes rather a lot. And the trust evaporates even more.
The other thing I wanted to cover was that we talked at the event where you had some interesting perspectives on purpose. On the purpose that we all have an the absence of it.
RORY SUTHERLAND: This is the strangest thing about the United States. I regard their holiday allocation as actually more or less a crime against humanity – the idea of two weeks annual vacation. They’re there living in a bloody interesting country. I’m even not sure the United States wouldn’t be richer – just as Henry Ford partly introduced the two day weekend. Part of Ford’s self-interest was that if workers had a two day weekend it was worth them buying a car because you had somewhere to go other than church. You know ‘a car the convenient way to get to your local church!’
I’m not even sure that if Americans had a greater amount of leisure given that leisure spending creates more employment than buying manufactured goods. And also that money is spent locally rather than on the other side of the world. It’s not even axiomatic to me that America wouldn’t be richer overall with more holiday.
It could lead to higher productivity.
That’s but that’s the other thing which is weirdly I don’t think British GDP fell much during the Three Day Week. Now for younger viewers, ie viewers under 45 this was a period of intense fuel shortages in the 1970s when Britain to save energy worked a three week. There’s some evidence that GDP more or less remained constant which might suggest there’s an element of arse covering and bullshit work which is actually a very large amount of our activity. One of the advantages I heard when Mitsubishi went into a four day week. People cut out of a lot of bullshit because they were really eager to get Friday off. So they have far less patience for what you might call padding activities.
I wonder if that would persist over time though? When it’s so counter cultural.
RORY SUTHERLAND: One of the things we look at and I don’t want to work on an oil rig I slightly envy that oil rig which is three weeks / two weeks off or whatever they do. Canadian lumberjacks do something very strange in terms of their work patterns as well.
But experimentation, obviously it’s difficult because of coordination we’re a client driven business. Well actually you don’t have to be in the office when your clients ring, but you have to be available. I totally accept that.
I saw an agency in Liverpool that had gone down to a six hour day. The first thing when you first hear that you go ‘that seems quite brief’ and then you start thinking well if you add in their electronic communication. All of us take a phone call (as long as it’s not from a barred number) we all take a phone call whenever it comes in.
RORY SUTHERLAND: The BlackBerry led people to do something like six hours extra unpaid work.
That’s right. They say it’s two hours a day now. And the interesting thing, so whether it’s between six and 10 but they say it correlates to ’50 percent of people who check their emails out of work hours exhibit signs of stress’.
RORY SUTHERLAND: At some level having demarcation lines which used to be provided by your location. They’re also provided actually by social norms in that someone could ring you at the weekend at home. Funnily in the last days of Arthur Andersen, we had them as a client. I was terribly upset to see them go. In the last days of Arthur Anderson talking to one of the partners there he said I was routinely called on my mobile phone at weekends. And he said lots of people in the office knew my home phone number before the mobile phone came along. But the only reason they’d phone me at home is if the office was on fire. Suddenly the mobile phone provided you with permission to call people at times which will have seemed a monstrous impertinence only 10 years before. And there was a kind of licence to do it. Now I think we need to have a slight, just a slight counter revolution against this. And one of the things I would value would be the ability to send emails with a delayed send function – which is I want to get this off my chest now. I want get this damn thing sent I actually don’t want to screw up your weekend with it. Can I please just have this damn thing sit in the cloud for the weekend and then arrive on Monday at 10 o’clock – at some civilised hour. Whereas at the moment you just press send and the engineers behind it assume that the best form of communication must be instantaneous. Now that’s true in information theory if you’re an engineer or dealing with telephony. Human communication and technological communication are very very different things.
Funnily enough when I send my expenses in to my PA – as a strange example – if I’ve got a whole bloody month’s worth or two months’ worth. I don’t want a burden her with a whole heap of things in one go I put in them in an envelope and send one half of them first half and half of them second class just to break the the overload of the whole thing.
There are certain assumptions which I think Silicon Valley thinking has which come from engineering. Faster is better. All feedback is good etc etc etc which simply aren’t true and we need to we need to have a little bit of a counter of revolution where we start setting lines of ‘You don’t do this after that’. Miles Young who’s the former Chief Executive of Ogilvy, he tried to adhere to the principle where once you sit down to dinner, that’s it.
I think if we don’t accept the fact that people have lines. Maybe people draw different lines. Me as a 51 year old person who commutes has different desires from a 23 year old who has a 20 minute journey into work. In my case the big gain is I actually get into work late but I travel on a slow but empty train. It’s empty partly because it’s a bit late, partly because it’s slow. But I get a table and by the time I get in at 10 or whatever I’ve done an hour’s worth of email on the train. So my commuting time is effectively negligible. I’m got a very mischevous suggestion which is, what Google really needs to invent isn’t the driverless car it’s the driverless toilet and shower. Because then if you think about it doesn’t matter if you live half a mile away from London because if your journey into work is spent actually going to the loo and having a shower and getting dressed. And admittedly it has to be a pretty smooth moving vehicle.
My colleague in America’s got a Tesla. He says you put on self driving on the way to work and he says it transforms your relationship with your commute. Because he sits at the wheel and like it’s autopilot it’s self driving but you need to be there. But it transforms your relationship with your commute. It no longer feels to be this tax on the most productive time of your day. It now feels like ‘me time’ I’m sitting here powering through emails. It’s like a little cubicle.
RORY SUTHERLAND: Actually reframing the commute and reframing travel and transportation is a very big task because one of the things I was saying earlier is that if I were in charge of government the first thing I’d do is I’d mandate that train companies sold off peak season tickets. You could upgrade to a peak journey on a one off basis but you could buy on off peak one. Secondly for part time workers they sold carnets -a hundred journeys for X and then use them in the course of the year. Part time workers are very badly treated – they’re often the poorest people – and they’re very badly treated by the rail pricing system. The standard season ticket is designed for a Victorian commuter.
The whole of life is designed for a Victorian…
RORY SUTHERLAND: It is. It’s a 19th century concept. Commute is an interesting thing. The reason why commuters are called commuters. Is that you used to buy tickets on the American Railroad and then you take a certain number of journeys and commute them to a collective ticket. You get some sort of rebate which is where the word commuter comes from – it’s extraordinary etymology. It’s all to do with what you do to your ticket. It’s a totally dated concept. Incredibly unfair to part time workers. I also feel sorry for the railway companies as well because there is that very weird ingratitude. I’m happy to go to work very early or very late. I won’t travel at peak time because my argument is well if the train is completely rammed I’m basically wasting my time. I’ve got no table, I’ve got nowhere to sit. This is just ridiculous. So by going in very early or very late I’ve always had a grudging affection for the journey because it’s pretty productive. I get to look out of the window but also I mean let’s let’s not forget this… the simple fact remains that I bought a flat for 300 something thousand pounds and if it were in Fulham it cost me five million. So I’m not really grumbling that much. They do actually save quite a lot of money. Actually that journey into Charing Cross today doesn’t take much longer and getting to Charing Cross from Fulham. There’s is a very strange thing in terms of the way people frame what is London what isn’t. I think you could create huge property value and completely shift the appreciation of where people live if you got rid of the Tube Map.
I think it is an enormous biasing effect. A lot of people in North London assume that South Londoners travel to work by bus. It’s a fantastic rail network.
Well if you call the Thameslink which goes right up to Hertfordshire, if you called that the Hertford Line and you put it on the Tube then all of a sudden it transforms into your perception.
RORY SUTHERLAND: Thameslink – we’re right next to Blackfriars – it’s a bloody dream. And Cross Rail will have a huge effect, I think it brings an extra million and a half people within 45 minutes of Central London.
That will have very big centrifugal effects on where people can live particularly if they do Cross Rail to as well. Slightly weird Chelsea to Hackney route – that very popular route.
I think people need to reframe the commute because I always get a bit irritated if people say well you’re getting in late. Yeah well yeah. You started work when you got into the office, I started work an hour earlier and now I’m in the office because I’ve cleared all that shit I can spend my time doing what I can only do in the office. Where the office has what economists call a comparative advantage which is spending some of my spare time wandering around and chatting to people at random.
Absolutely. But that’s where the Results Only Work Environment comes in because no one is ever permitted to say to someone else ‘half day!’ when you wander in at 11. It’s like you’re an autonomous being. If you’re not doing your job you’ll be fired. But don’t ever criticise anyone else. Even they say if you fancy going to watch Beauty and the Beast mid-afternoon, go and watch it. As long as you’re doing your job we’re not going to impose rules on you.
RORY SUTHERLAND: The whole thing has to start with a whole period of de-programming effectively. You have to have of post Moonie de-programming.
Yeah there’s cleansing of your system. They say that they spend 90 minutes now just going through all of the possible things that could be there. But we’ve all recognised it haven’t we, if you’re running late and then the train is delayed that sense of anxiety when you walk into the office because you’re scared someone’s going make a sarcastic comment.
RORY SUTHERLAND: You know what happens in Japan. The train company hands you a chit that certifies that your train was late so that you can present it to your employer. Fortunately our railway is such that generally people do believe us when our train is late. But you’re right that sense of anxiety… Oddly one think I say to my PA is ‘look if there are sort of paid speaking engagements for Ogilvy which involve a two and a half hour trip to say Manchester or Liverpool default to yes’ because actually the four hours I spend on the train provided its mid-afternoon the four hours spent on the train would be the most productive four hours I spend all week. It’s magical. Virgin have got the wifi fairly well sorted. Several trains I’ve been on recently have been quite impressive. Not as impressive as Swedish railways which seem to make the wifi work. Even when you’re in the middle of nowhere.
It’s down to that old thing though isn’t it when someone’s staring out the window and someone says to them have you got no work to do. And it’s like “this is my work” – that thinking.
RORY SUTHERLAND: You know thinking the reason I joined advertising was I remember I went to J Walter Thompson for a graduate interview and they had a talk from a creative person there. He said ‘it’s very strange to be a creative director because it’s the one case where you look down the corridor and everybody is looking out of the window you are happy that they’re doing their jobs’. There’s a value to randomness and there’s a value to downtime which I think we all know it instinctively but the urge to signal busyness.
The other point, by the way, which interests me about that Best Buy experiment is pretty low staff turnover. I suspect actually one interesting case is that companies which are pretty close to a railway station tend to have low staff turnover. There was a famous case where Solomon Brothers moved to being right next to Victoria Station. They actually had a problem which is they could never get rid of their older staff because they’d move out to Hayward’s Heath or Brighton. It was such a joyous commute that in fact people stayed forever. Now this is an interesting one if you look at America and their two weeks’ vacation. Taking three weeks’ vacation is considered morally dubious in the United States. I had one friend who wouldn’t accept a job at Google because two weeks was non-negotiable and she said I’m an expat. One of the weeks has got to be spent visiting my friends and family back in the UK. So I’m effectively left with one week to discover the United States. And because they wouldn’t budge she turned down the job. Now the interesting thing with the United State is three weeks vacation or four would be considered a monstrous indulgence. The Germans take six and they’re perfectly productive. But yet retirement’s considered completely virtuous. Now, retirement is a terrible thing because you take everything you have in your head. You take a lifetime of experience and in the space of one day you remove it completely from the corporate brain. It’s a minor corporate lobotomy when somebody retires. It takes away this chunk irredeemably. Now if you had more flexible time. I don’t think it’s a good idea to retire completely. Sometimes it’s bad for your health as you’re just not doing enough. I don’t play golf or anything like that, I’d probably just turn my retirement into a massive box set binge to be honest. But also you can become a bit of an arsehole because you put the same amount of energy you used to put into your work into what is essentially daily trivia. So both my father and my father in law both worked into their late seventies not full time but they did something. And it was pretty beneficial. It was really healthy both of them and the people they worked for. Actually it’s a case where the old and also women with children or single parents can make common cause which is if you make this a bit more flexible you’ll get a hell of a lot back in return. In exchange for not much. So you know at the age of 65, the advertising industry means you’re with youthful people as well it’s good for you in that respect. I wouldn’t want to disappear from it completely equally I don’t want to be getting up early five days a week. So developing some sort of a flexible approach is really useful in keeping on what is a huge wealth in many cases of both contacts and a huge wealth of experience. To be honest older people have a sense of proportion but also the teaching value. Pretty much everything I’ve really learned big in my 29 years in the industry, I’ve learnt from someone who is older than me. I’m not dissing younger people. But the really big stuff you learn from the Paul Feldwicks and Jeremy Bullmores and the Drayton Birds and the people who are 10 or 15 years older than you. When I was at university one of the most important things was wasn’t the university it was that one of our friends was a mature student called Ray Foulk. He was doing architecture he was then 45 I think. He was younger than I am now. We all called him Gramps. We had absolutely no sensitivity. But before he decided to go university to do architecture he’d organised the three Isle of Wight festivals with his brothers, he’d been an Art Decor furniture dealer. Now actually the amount you learnt from him was as much as you learnt from the rest of the university. He was a fantastic guy.
Loads of things about just life skills. I always remember one I’ve used all my life, he said if you’re ever stuck in a town he said ‘just go into the best hotel in town and order tea’. He said ‘because doesn’t cost much more than tea anywhere else and you’ve got a great big hotel around’.
Rubbing against people of different ages. Different age cohorts is really valuable. They have a different set of priorities to you but also they have different proportions to you. It often worries me about the ad industry. It worried me about the ad industry reaction to Brexit. I don’t mind the fact that you disagree with this result but the fact that it baffles is worrying. It’s not your job to work in advertising and to be totally confused by the motivations of half the population. That shows a real failing. It was interesting it was the older people in the agency understood it completely they understood the mental motivation. If you end up with very metropolitan cosmopolitan people all drawn from very similar backgrounds you can completely lose touch with what’s really going on out there. What other people’s priorities are.
I was judging something last year and one of the young people in the room of an agency came out with a comment. A sort of 23 year old came out with the comment ‘no one watches TV anymore!’
Of course, the person from ITV went crazy about it. Because firstly firstly it’s subjective and it’s so far from what the reality is.
RORY SUTHERLAND: Even – by the way – even that person who said watches a hell of a lot of TV they may watch it on a slightly different screen or they may download it first but it’s still TV. That is by the way an extraordinary thing which people say. And those kind of generalisations which aren’t even true of the bubble to which they refer in fact. But they’re certainly not true of the whole of the population. That’s exactly the kind of crap which we’ve really got to protect against. Actually I think Silicon Valley being so geographically concentrated poses a slight threat. The strangest thing about the whole place if you go to San Francisco. You have this place full of people who are convinced they’re going to solve the world’s problems and the place itself is a total shit hole. So you go to some fantastic dotcom and there’s like a wino asleep in the doorway.
There’s people going into the office going we’re going to change the world and they hardly even improve their own doorstep. The wifi at at San Francisco airport is shit. The infrastructure, the roads are potholed and generally crappy and atrocious. And yet these people are absolutely convinced that somehow the great panceas to everything is coming out of this town.
I think especially with a Western European perspective where you walk around cities and you go to places, you see things that they just don’t see because it’s such a car dominated society. So a lot of the people I’ve worked with who live in San Francisco get an Uber to and from work. It costs cut them six dollars and it means they don’t step over that guy who’s lying in his own faeces in the doorway. It is astonishing. We all go into the office going ‘man there’s a guys shooting up out there’. They’re oblivious to the whole thing.
But you know they don’t walk through it and so they allow themselves to compartmentalise their perspective of that situation.
RORY SUTHERLAND: The quality of the roads! There’s a very interesting guy who’s in the Valley. He’s from Poland. He blogs I wish I could remember his name but he makes the point that ‘I go back to Poland. I see the new roads the new street lamps, the new hotels, the shopping malls. All of this has been done since the fall of communism. We built every damn thing and I come to San Francisco which is notionally much much richer and there are holes in the road, crap infrastructure everywhere’.
That 30 mile radius area has generated more wealth in the last 50 years than anywhere on the planet. But you would not know it would you.
And I mean Detroit, in fairness to the car industry. It was a magnificent city in the 1950s and 60s. It was an astounding place. So the failure of any of the money to a stick.
Anyway in summary I think the problem is a coordination problem. One way to solve it for example in the United States you know you might say the holiday thing is status quo bias. Most people would like a little less money and more vacation. It’s not even clear to me that more vacation would impoverish the United States overall. Service industries are quite labour intensive. The United States is an amazing place to go on holidays as a Brit because there’s no one around.
If the Grand Canyon where in Europe it’d be heaving with Germans half the year. No, they’re all at work. So the way to change it might be through experiment and you just say ‘OK we’re going to do a collective experiment where for two years everybody in the United States is going to take a vacation and then we have a collective decision on whether we want to stick with it or go back to the status quo ante’.
I think that in offices, in individual offices certainly what is interesting is to take a few niche groups which might include very young people. Let’s say you’re an Australian working at Ogilvy, the only sane reason you’d leave Sydney is to see Europe, maybe the deal is longer weekends or a 4 day week while you’re here.
Allowing people to time shift is probably essential to helping London infrastructure along without impossible perhaps politically unacceptable spending. Spending a huge fortune on London is a bit awkward if you look at the general wealth imbalance in the UK. So one way of achieving that is to say ‘okay what we’ll do is we’ll broaden the shoulder, particularly of the morning commute. The evening commute is actually slightly broadened by trips to the pub and so forth. But if you broaden the morning commute a bit which by definition will probably broaden the evening one too and a certain percentage of people will work four days of 10 hour days then one of the things you could do is you will make far better use of existing infrastructure rather than having to build more.
We’ve just got such a ridiculous attitude to that though haven’t we, in the sense that – like you say – you come in at 10 and one thinks ‘Rory doesn’t work that hard’.
RORY SUTHERLAND: And weirdly if you stand around chatting to people in the office you look lazy. Whereas if you go to your desk and stare at email you look busy. The interesting thing is arguably if you’re in the office the very act of emailing things in the office is exactly not the point. Like having a crap it’s something you should do at home.