I have mercifully few regrets in my patchy and scabrous career but there is one that stands out clearly — I started working in advertising too late to enjoy the “Three Martini Lunch”. Many of my superiors in the agencies, the senior men with the year-round tan, the sockless loafers and the “important” hair, spoke fondly of entertaining clients at sybaritic orgies of fine food and drink, which lasted all afternoon and long into the night.
Before the plague, it was common to hear the older restaurateurs of Soho lament the passing of the business lunch. They remembered the days when a restaurant in the centre of a city could rely on a constant flow of corporate entertaining. It was at their tables that politics, business and journalism took place, lubricated by alcohol. Nobody ate lunch in the metropolis on their own dime. Every meal was underwritten by someone’s expense account; in fact, the Old Ones told us, back in the day it was even tax-deductible.
I (O mea culpa!) was of the generation that destroyed all this — thrusting Young Turks, equipped with the newly “mobile” telephones and almost luggable laptops. We were supposed to scorn the old guard with their corner offices and company cars. A grabbed salad “al desko” was sufficient for us. We were the yuppie Stakhanovites with no breaks for lunch in our inevitable and seamless rise to mastering the universe. But secretly I burnt with jealousy.
The pandemic, of course, has kept us away from restaurants for what seems like for ever, but it has also kept us away from the office and it’s this fact that gives me just the tiniest hope that we might be able to reclaim the proper business lunch before I reach retirement age.
Work from home, they said, if you possibly can . . . and millions have. Whole sectors of the business world were suddenly forced to realise what we lucky freelancers had known all along — that you don’t need an office to work. You can Zoom your meetings, you can collaborate in the Cloud. You don’t need a desk or turf war over meeting rooms; in fact, on nice warm days, you don’t even need underwear.
Workers realised they didn’t have to sweat their way to work on a train every day. They could consider moving somewhere where they could afford a place bigger than a shared coffin to live in and where they might find decent schools for the kids they would suddenly be able to afford. And bosses considered the inflated rent they’d been paying for prestige space in the city and, to their own surprise, thought “sod it” as they smiled at the dog running round the garden and wriggled their toes inside their comfortable slippers.
Now don’t get me wrong here. Some people will want to return to the office. Some people will have to. But after the past year, the world of work can never return to where it was. The technology is just too good for all of us not to take advantage of it. In fact, according to the experts, what we’ll miss most will be the human contact.
Of course, there are HR teams out there working on this as we speak, planning bimonthly get-togethers in rented, highly specced “third-space” environments, where we can all catch up with each other and attach real, warm humans to the weird, stuttering, startled Zoom faces. But that’s not what we need.
What we really need is to gather in small groups, to bond quickly, deeply and efficiently. We don’t need formal meetings or presentations — those things are so much better done online. We need to chat, to flirt, to exchange inconsequential gossip, to laugh, share stories and maybe get a little messy. Where should we do this? Well, we don’t need a conference centre with ample parking, conveniently situated just off the M1. We need a warm, inviting, humane place where we can sit in comfort and relax. If only such places existed . . . hundreds of them, in the centres of our towns, newly reopened and desperate for our business. Yes! We might travel in for that. In fact, if we went in the middle of the day, we might even be back in our own comfortable homes that very evening.
We don’t need “team-building”, we need natural conviviality — the sort of thing that might spontaneously occur between colleagues who’ve been deprived of human company for months. And we need a professional to guide us. Not some facilitator, attempting to “disinhibit” us with half-baked, pretend-you’re-a-tree exercises, but a bartender — plus three clinically pure, hand-built, weapons-grade martinis and no one expecting us back at the office. Ever.
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