A couple of weeks ago, I boarded a plane, caught a train and rented a car, and ended up in an obscure but beautiful part of northern France. The directions I had were succinct: proceed along the road until you see the picnic area and the horses, and then turn left. You can’t miss the house a mile or so down the road.
House? Château. A huge, sprawling, muscular, stone building, with a self-consciously new roof and new stones shining out among the drabber hues of the old. You’d probably call it a work in progress, but with just more progress than work, after several years and buckets of money.
Here, and in remote properties spread all over the world, during the summer months you will find the partners of a particular law firm.
I had come visiting friends, rather than in need of legal advice, but had I been a high-net-worth individual wanting advice on UK tax or establishing an offshore trust, I would have been in the right place. Because this particular law firm took the decision some time ago that each summer (defined for them as late May to early September) the partners would disperse from their expensive city-centre offices and relocate to their expensive country estates and second homes.
From there, they would conduct their business, using the full force of the internet to make geography history, with only occasional easyJet or AirAsia short-haul flights to face-to-face meetings.
It struck me as a fantastic idea, as I stood there with the warm sun beaming down on my face, watching my friend’s husband wrap up a conference call by the lake. I thought of the small, windowless cells from where I have joined conference calls over many years, and felt sick with jealousy.
My peripatetic friends had left their home in Singapore in late May, and are renting this astonishing, tumbledown palace for three months. Then they are taking a three-week holiday and touring round Europe to see friends. They will return to Asia in September, when the weather begins to turn. What’s not to like?
Such enlightenment in working practices is rare. In the world of law, with its macho culture and "always-on" client service, it’s rarer still. Yet the partners of this firm worked out that happiness is not always a casualty of business success, and that they could have their gâteau and eat it. Yet in marketing, a discipline where we are supposed to spot and adopt new memes and ideas at the first opportunity, working practices are still redolent of the pre-internet age.
If you are not in the office, the slight whiff of suspicion remains that you’re not working – you’re skiving.
I’ve thought about this long and hard, and there can only be two reasons why we don’t spend more time working out of the office. The advantages are plain: clear thinking, increased productivity and no commute costs speak for themselves. How often have you heard someone in the office sigh and say "I always get so much done at home", while they bend to the interrupted task at hand?
What keeps us in the office is half-practical, half-habitual. Practically speaking, we like working in teams – unlike lawyers, who tend to be lone wolves. Their idea of a team is a group of people who can obey instructions. Marketers tend to be more collaborative, and create in the fug of the office, the bar or even at lunch. We thrive on being together, surrounded by the people we sell to. If you are working in retail, you need to see shops; if you sell beer, get to the pub. All that is made difficult with long, sustained periods working away.
What is less reasonable is the myth that persists, even after we have long laughed at the Japanese for exactly the same thing. Namely that if you are not in the office, the slight whiff of suspicion remains that you’re not working – you’re skiving.
I remember reading a very funny piece by Mark Lawson in The Independent at the time when he wrote those witty boxes at the bottom of the front page. His strategy for "being in when he was out" was to have an "office jacket", hanging on the back of his chair at all times. If the editor walked past and asked "Where’s Mark?", a compliant neighbour would offer: "He’s here somewhere. His jacket is still here…"
This distrustful attitude must be a hangover from school, where, indeed, if you were not at school, you really were skiving. But here we are, decades since we left school, and someone is away from their desk for a week, our natural, instinctive reaction is that they are "doing a Ferris Bueller", rather than simply conducting their work somewhere else.
Perhaps this will change as the years pass, and the next generation takes hold of the workplace and sets the rules and norms. Work where you are happy, they’ll say. As O2 boss Ronan Dunne put it succinctly to a friend of mine, who was enquiring into the possibility of working from home two days a week: "I’m only interested in outputs, not inputs." Such clarity and generosity of thought, typical for him, is atypical for many.
Consider this, though. Maybe we are happy in the office. Perhaps the craic of colleagues, the buzz of new ideas and the allure of bright thoughts are greater and more intense when we are in the middle of things. How stimulated can you really be when you are spending your days lolling by a lake overlooking a 15th-century château in sunny France? The answer, of course, is that I have no idea, but one day would like to be able to provide you with a definite answer.