In general, the business community is obsessed with what Michael Lewis once termed the “new, new thing.” It’s that faith in a kind of kaizen-in-all-things that has led to innumerable technological, organizational, and social advances in the corporate world. It’s why factories are now safer, hybrid cars are cheaper, board rooms are growing gradually more diverse, and instant communication via email and other technologies is becoming the norm. Progress is good, and the business community has made real advances over the last 50-60 years.
But are there elements of mid-twentieth-century business culture that may be worth preserving? Reading responses to my recent posts on the benefits of reading and of writing personal notes, I was struck by how many commenters waxed nostalgic for these (as many called them) “old school” practices. There was a sense that while progress has been made, certain practices of mid-twentieth-century business culture merit a second look in the modern workplace. That got me thinking — beyond reading books and handwriting notes, what other “old school” office habits might be worth resurrecting? At least five suggestions came to mind:
1. Dress well. One of our enduring cultural fascinations is with yesteryear’s fashion — from Jackie Kennedy’s Camelot attire to Mad Men-style tailoring and taste. But business culture (particularly in the U.S.) has grown increasingly casual over the years. Given recent studies showing that dressing well is associated with professional success, perhaps it’s time to turn the table on that downward slide and revive of a culture of greater sophistication in office dress. This wouldn’t necessary mean growing more superficial, spending more money, or even relapsing into an era of bespoke three-piece suits. But it might mean trading Dwight Schrute for Don Draper once in a while and aspiring to an occasional concern for aesthetics.
2. Make meetings distraction-free. Many meetings — even in-person gatherings — have descended into overdrawn affairs in which the majority of participants are merely listening in between smartphone messages and iPad email alerts. In a recent study, half of the respondents admitted to checking their phones in meetings, a finding other studies have confirmed. But meetings work better when everyone isn’t dumbed down by distraction. Smart, modern workplaces, like Adaptive Path, have had to ban technology in meetings so that everyone acts as a full participant. Doing so can make meetings more focused and productive, and make presenters feel more respected. It can also shorten meeting length, as participants push for conclusion when they get bored rather than passing the time playing Angry Birds.
3. Lengthen lunch. The modern lunch break is an increasingly unhealthy affair. Many folks stay at their desks for lunch or quickly grab food on the go. That may be exactly the right approach some days for busy professionals looking to excel at work and find time for family after. But there may also be value to periodically taking longer, more leisurely lunch breaks. Experts claim that people who take lunch breaks are healthier and more productive. And finding time — even once or twice a week — for an overlong lunch with colleagues has the potential to create stronger relationships at work and make us healthier and more productive in the process.
4. Be punctual. It’s become too easy to run late. When we book time with others, we often think it perfectly appropriate to push meetings back so long as we text or email in advance to warn the other participants. And, indeed, this ability to communicate is helpful when we’re unavoidably detained. But there’s something to be said for old-fashioned punctuality. Sixty years ago, it was important to keep commitments because there was often little opportunity to reschedule on the fly. But even with the advent of always-on technologies, being on time is important. It keeps us focused. It generates a perception in others that we’re reliable. It shows respect for other people, and it can decrease the costly impact of wasted time. One study found that staff lateness costs the UK economy £9 billion per year. Perhaps old school punctuality can pay real and psychological dividends.
5. Take a real vacation. I recently took a trip to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and the place I stayed had no cell phone reception. At first I panicked at the lack of phone and 4G access, but as I took time to kayak, jog along the water’s edge, and generally absorb my surroundings, I became grateful for the opportunity for my moment off-the-grid. Americans, South Koreans, and others are notoriously bad about taking vacation. Tony Schwartz and many others have written extensively about the benefits of taking vacations and disconnecting while doing so. But it bears repeating. If you left the office for a Caribbean beach trip in 1950, it was genuinely hard to stay in touch — no mail, phone calls, or email could reach you. Now it’s far too easy for vacations to be consumed with email communication and conference call interruptions. Treating every vacation like a 1950s vacation might help those who need to truly relax.
Modern business is right to push for progress, but there are always some things from past eras worth retaining. And while the business community should constantly strive for improvement, we should also take care to hold on to those practices of prior generations that made office life more effective, engaging, and fun.