Why I think British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman is wrong about home-working in today’s Guardian

by martinhesp

So British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman states in today’s Guardian that home-working is “not an adequate alternative…”
I couldn’t disagree more. It’s a statement which, journalistically speaking at any rate, seems so incredibly far off the mark I cannot believe anyone in the industry could mutter such a thing, let alone lay out her explanation in a national newspaper.
“I believe in the collective creativity of an office,” writes Ms Shulman.
She makes it sound like a sixth form common room – full of breathless enthusiasm and excitement.
Journalism – and writing – isn’t like that. It is a matter of grinding hard work at the coal-face of thought, word-selection and sentence structure.
And as an old editor of mine once said: “Great stories don’t come from the insides of newspaper offices – they come from out there….”
It was that editor who, wisely, put a clause in the employment contract I still hold to this day – and it says something like “Martin Hesp shall never be expected to work in a company office”.
I don’t know the world Ms Shulman works in – nor do I want to. Especially when she writes: “Some of the best stories in any publication I have worked on have come out of a glancing remark somebody has made about their night before, or a piece of gossip, or a joke…”
Certainly sounds like a sixth-form common room.
“The daily download of chatter within the office feeds into what we produce in an incalculable way,” she adds. Does it? How sad is that?
She says that’s far preferable to having: “Having half the team sitting at home, fiddling around on a search engine from the kitchen or pasting up mood boards from the sofa.”
Obviously I have no idea what the employees at Vogue do – but I’m guessing some of them are journalists and I’m wondering what planet they’re on if this is the sort of thing that occupies their time when working from home.
Ms Shulman does admit: “If you are trying to write a 3,000-word piece, it’s much easier to do it away from the meetings and coffee runs and other people’s phone messages.”
But then she goes on to declare: “I know what working at home means. It means you don’t have to get dressed. It means you can totter into the kitchen to put the kettle on 10 times a day. It means you can take a break and check whether that really is a daffodil poking up in the garden. It means you can be there to let in the electrician.”
I find myself almost weeping when I read these words. I’d imagine anyone who could say such a thing has never had to knock out material to tight deadlines. I would dearly love to go out into my garden looking for daffodils – but I rarely have the time.
I wrote this column the other day for my newspaper the Western Morning News – and I’m sure my bosses won’t mind if I repeat an edited version of it here as it is 100 per cent relevant to the discussion…
You know how Britain sort of ruled the world for a while during the Victorian era? Well, I have a theory that when we were empire building and turning the atlas pink our chaps didn’t have meetings.
Nine out of ten phone-calls I’ve made today in order to research another article resulted in the increasingly inevitable: “Sorry, I’m afraid he/she is in a meeting.”
What were they all blabbing on about?
With nothing else to do but wait for returned calls I turned on the radio, only to learn that UK output per hour in 2011 was further below the average of major economies than at any time since 1993, according to the latest figures.
The Office for National Statistics says that British output per employee trailed the G7 average by a massive 21 per cent in 2011, the most recent year for which there is data.
This means that our output per hour was 16 per cent worse than across the other major industrialised economies – the worst UK figure for 18 years.
As I write, experts are shaking their heads saying they can’t understand why we should be so embarrassingly unproductive.
I could tell them the answer. Nine-tenths of the country’s work-force is in a meeting (or in one of Ms Shulman’s beloved offices).
I have attended a few of these sorry affairs over the long and weary years and I can tell you this – three-quarters of the time spent in any meeting is a waste of effort and energy.
For a start, you go in and there’s the run-of-the-mill chatter which humans have to do so as not to seem robotic and uncaring. Then there’s a “let’s get down to business” period where the chair-person or whoever paints an overly obvious overview of what is to come.
This is followed by the real nitty-gritty – then comes the lengthy period of rumination as folk take in what’s been said and add their own ten-penneth-worth. Which might – but probably won’t – change anything that’s been decided already.
But it allows people to get things off their chests and go away thinking: “That showed him,” or “No hair off my chest if it all goes wrong – I told ‘em it’s not gonna work…”
Of course, no one will be going away thinking anything at all until they’ve undergone the various end-of-meeting rituals which such con-flabs require as part of the Western World’s modern day protocol.
If all that takes, say, one hour, I bet you could have done the real business in ten minutes.
So what is happening here? My theory is that, as we become ever more “managerial” in our approach to just about everything, so the world becomes a matter of box-ticking and procedure more than innovation and instantaneous imaginative input.
But we are still human, so we need to get our bit humanity in somewhere.
Where better than a meeting?
The trouble is, none of this is helping the economy. In fact, it’s not helping anyone or any thing – it’s just supplying a mental hot-water bottle for the millions of folk who work in offices.
The culture of meetings also allows for a good deal of obfuscation so that people in firing lines need never really be put on the spot…
“Look – we really need to do something about this,” says one manager.
“I agree – which is why we’ve scheduled a meeting to discuss it next week,” replies the next up the line.
The Victorian empire-builder would have made a decision there and then. And so too, would many Americans I know.
Last week on my travels I was with a new breed of business people called bloggers – one of them has more than 10 million people regularly following his adventures and has turned his writings and travels into a small commercial-empire. He fired constant email instructions off to staff back in the States, so that I eventually asked him if he ever went home for face-to-face meetings with them.
“You must be joking,” he said. “I haven’t time for that. I just tell ‘em what to do.”
He was an abrupt, no-nonsense sort of guy – rather cold – but my god he got things done and did so with an energetic sense of urgency.
I’m not saying we should all be like him, although we’d reverse those productivity trends if we were. However, I do think there should be some kind of national moratorium on meetings – and also, as it happens, on bosses who cannot see that people can be more effective away from offices.