Lloyds bank has found a new way of saving money. It has banned all staff from travelling on the third week of every month.
How pathetic, I thought when I first heard of this. Things evidently aren't good at the half-nationalized bank if first the chief executive stays home for a couple of months because he's exhausted and then it implements a hare-brained cost-cutting scheme that treats people like babies.
The idea is nonsensical: if a trip matters, it ought to be taken at the right time, and if it isn't, it ought not to be taken at any time at all. Most ludicrous of all, the bank says the policy is part of its "Smart and Responsible" initiative and is in accordance with one of its core values: "We Act Wisely."
Yet Lloyds claims that this scheme has been a great triumph. Since it was put in place six months ago, 70,000 fewer trips have been taken. Each month the bank saves £1.5-million in costs, and presumably much more in terms of management time. And far from travel being correspondingly higher in the other three weeks, it is even falling in those, too.
So maybe it is not such a stupid idea after all. Maybe it is necessary to treat grown-up staff like babies because, contrary to any We-Act-Wisely guff, all office workers act remarkably unwisely when it comes to travel. Everyone travels far more than makes sense – except perhaps to airlines and hotels. It is tiring and lonely to be stuck in a succession of anonymous hotel rooms, where you can't figure out how the lights work and with only the minibar for company. It is also expensive. And bad for marriages. And the environment doesn't like it either.
But still everyone goes on travelling. The ash cloud proved what bliss it was when managers were grounded but no sooner had the skies cleared than business people were back in the air again.
Most companies are trying to solve the problem by outlawing all but the most important trips. Even though this sounds sensible, it doesn't work as it's too vague: Everyone responds by claiming that their trip is essential. If instead you treat everyone like babies and impose arbitrary rules, people have no choice but to comply.
Imposing such a structure on adults may be less alien than it sounds; history suggests humans rather like it. The very fact that we divide time into weeks and months suggests a willingness to do (or not do) particular things at particular times. One relatively popular part of religious cultures is the idea of a weekly holy day, where there is a ban not just on travel but on any work at all.
And yet business has almost completely abandoned any such structure. There is no longer much that divides up our working lives. Days and evenings merge into each other, as do workdays and weekends. It's supposed to be an age of flexibility and empowerment; actually it's a great, undifferentiated expanse of frantic inefficiency.
If weekly travel bans are a good idea, a similar system should be deployed for all the other ways in which We Are Not Wise with our time. Such a policy is surely the solution to the e-mail problem, given that other approaches have clearly failed. The only remaining answer is to flip the master switch and say e-mail is banned on Tuesdays.
Equally there should be designated days (or weeks) when there are no meetings, and other days when business lunches are outlawed. As for business breakfasts, they could be safely outlawed every day.
The Lloyds experience suggests that all of these policies would change behaviour for the better. Now that people at the bank have been forced to stay put, they have discovered that not only has nothing bad happened but something rather good has: they have got their work done faster. Having proved this, they are now starting to wonder if the trips in the other weeks are really necessary after all.
I can think of one final – and thrillingly radical – rule that could also be introduced to lift productivity. It would force people, perhaps just for one week a month, to leave the office on time.
It sounds extreme, but I have evidence that it works. When my children were young, I had to get home at a fixed time every day to relieve the nanny. I had no choice in the matter, and so my work was miraculously always done in time. Now I have the option of working more flexibly – i.e. working longer and much more unwisely – and so I never fail to take it.
But now I come to think of it, this super-radical, leave-work-on-time idea has been done before. It's called working nine to five and, if memory serves, it used to be rather successful.