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Releasing your inner idiot ...

In his first Blog of 2023 Andrew Holden, Managing Director and Founder of Parliament Hill explores the theme of work-life balance and the importance of building ‘fun’ into your work day with your colleagues (whether that is online or face to face). To complete his blog Andrew has interviewed current and former Parliament Hill employees and added their thoughts into his argument that we should all ‘release our inner idiot’ to improve productivity.

It's always struck me that we spend an awfully large proportion of our lives at work. 8 hours a day (sometimes more) for 5 days a week, month in, month out, for decades. As former colleague Rob puts it, 'A sobering thought, that you spend more time with your work colleagues than you do with your partner / friends / children, has always driven home the importance of cherishing more personal and informal relationships with colleagues'.

For me, the thought of all that work time not being interspersed with fun, or good old-fashioned silliness seemed too awful to contemplate. Who would want to work in such an environment? Or what would be the point?!

According to our friends at Wikipedia (quoting Cornish and Dukette, 2009), the attention span for healthy adults ranges from 5-6 hours. During that time, there is likely to be a background build-up of (dare I say it?) boredom, or pressure, or even irritation. Or at the very least, the need for a proper break. Our colleague Ellen recently posted a PH blog relating to the importance of being able to 'switch off' – and I personally don't think that should just be restricted to 'after work'. As such, I have often sought to intersperse the working day with fun – and also sometimes to engineer a proper break, say mid-afternoon. Where people know it's coming – so they can work hard up to that point, knowing that a release point was coming, a moment where the valve would be opened.

Colleagues come from different backgrounds and have had different experiences. Rita came from the world of acting '... Where you release your inner idiot all the time – so I found it strange moving into the corporate world where everyone is so serious. Being silly and having fun for an hour can have huge benefits in terms of breaking down barriers, building trust and unlocking creativity. It's a shared experience that helps bring people together when they are isolated at home or possibly feeling isolated at work'. And yet Hayley says she never experienced daftness in the workplace until she joined Parliament Hill. For her, 'Having fun within the workplace and work day also gains trust amongst colleagues and peers, and undoubtedly improves working relations. It helps break up what can be a monotonous, sometimes stressful and busy day'.

My wife Lisa has commented that I'd replaced the more usually found 'child' with 'idiot'. And that's conscious – it implies going beyond having fun, to actually unlocking something which may otherwise remain hidden. For Mel, 'Work will always be work, but if you can laugh along the way it always becomes easier because you have a good time'. You can express yourself, in an environment where others are dropping their barriers too. For Mel: 'I can let my personality come through and be my authentic self in the most idiotic way possible; we're all human and humans like to laugh'. For some newer joiners, their main experience of myself or other senior members of the team might have been 'Bad Cop' in their interview; it's nice for them also to see a 'Good Cop' side too (is there an 'Idiot Cop'?)

I am fortunate that during my 19 years at Parliament Hill, I have regularly found myself in the company of some world-class fellow idiots* – or at the very least, people who were prepared to play along. Many of them (past and present colleagues) have contributed to this article. For some, the idiot may be less 'inner' than for others, but no matter. Jamie's mentality is: if you have an inner idiot, release it. If on inspection you don't, that's fine. And we were always careful not to browbeat people into joining in, if they didn't feel like it.

As a small but growing business, we couldn't afford a Google-style office with sleep pods and a full size pool table – although to be honest, I've always been slightly suspicious as to whether people ever would use those kind of facilities, especially if they were doing so in isolation, and might feel they were being watched. We genuinely worked really hard – but managed at various points to find time to play ping pong (on our tiny oval glass 'boardroom' table), to play boules up and down the office, and darts. It was structured permission to down tools and have a laugh – and laughing is generally regarded as a good thing, right? We had regular 'film nights' with pizza and beers, where we shared favourite films of great cultural significance; mine was the unparalleled 'Dumb & Dumber'. Mel helped develop the 'Parliament Hill Pentathlon' – where each day over a week there would be a different challenge we'd all undertake together – with points and glory at the end of it (not so much of either for me, generally. Hayley always rigged the scores).

I don't know how everyone else felt, but knowing that some sort of break was going to happen, at say 3pm, helped keep me more focused and sane up to that point than I might otherwise have been. It acted also as a safety valve for any frustration or irritation that had built up during the day. And I'm sure all these activities helped break down barriers across the team – as well as generating endless banter (very often at my expense). Everyone in the team, across different ages and departments, would get involved and interacting. Before long they'd be inventing, and leading us off themselves on some daft new idea. You got your name engraved (in biro) on 'the cup', if you won boules 5 times in a row. Or the wooden spoon if you were hapless enough to come last in the Pentathlon. Generally speaking, there tended to be a variety of activities, and something for everyone. And then we'd get back to work – dare I say it, refreshed and ready to crack on. By contrast, Rob writes 'I've had the misfortune of working at places during my career where there is a distinct lack of any individuality or personality – and it quickly becomes apparent that the culture suffers as a direct result. If everyone is trusted to deliver to the set expectations and outputs for their role, why shouldn't you inject a little humour and playfulness every now and then?'

Trust is indeed a key factor here – not least because you may otherwise fear you're opening a Pandora's Box of trouble, or potentially undermining your own authority. But I never found people overstepped the mark, or took advantage (apart from maybe that legendary long summer of ping pong...). And I never found that this irreverence, general silliness or banter undermined the authority of anyone in the leadership team – you'd have to ask PH colleagues past and present. Maybe if people have been able to let out the built-up tension each day, there might be less inclination to 'take the mick' at work? By the same token, the whole thing needs to involve some common sense in terms of what is appropriate, and 'reading the room', and the individual personalities within it. In any event for me, the approach we all embraced became part of the DNA of Parliament Hill, and part of our personality as a company.

But then Covid hit, and lockdown. All of a sudden, we were restricted to seeing each other on a Zoom or Teams call – and that just a couple of times a day. And our working patterns have changed as the pandemic evolved – the team is in the same physical location at the same time only once or twice a week, and we're using shared working spaces (where I'm thinking snowball fights and flash-mob dances might be frowned on...). Working from home has changed our dynamics as a group so much – and in fact, plenty of our more recent colleagues have only known this new way of working at PH. We've had to try to reinvent ourselves, and find new ways to inject fun into our days – mostly from a distance. We've appeared on team calls with wigs and silly glasses on. There have been online team games and film-sharing. Each day, a so-called 'Gimmick du Jour', involving a different challenge set by a member of the team – from naming WWE wrestlers to the best drawing of a dinosaur; from facts about citrus fruit to guessing colleagues from baby photographs. People have got really creative – Katie commented that 'I have enjoyed seeing the contrast in personalities that have come through from the gimmicks'. Rita even invented 'Where's Andrew' – which involved spotting little cut-out photos of my head which had been photoshopped into stills from famous films (I still can't spot myself in a zombie scene from 'Sean of the Dead', which is worrying). As Josh notes, what started as a way to lift spirits in the dark times and uncertainty of the first lockdown has taken on a life of its own: 'I often think that we might be the only company left still doing things like this, and that is super-impressive. We have done a gimmick almost every day for 3 years, I feel that is a very impressive stat'.

There's also downing tools and running a team quiz late on a Friday, over a drink (virtual or otherwise). As recent recruit Georgia puts it: 'I love that we get all involved on the weekly quiz and it's extended throughout the PH team – even if it is just the fact that you see new faces or see faces of our development team that you wouldn't usually see face to face'. As for when we can be face to face, beyond a quick drink after work on a Thursday, we've looked out more for structured events – like Flight Club, Swingers (not that type) and Tough Mudder, organised by Jack last summer, and with a mere 10% hospitalisation rate (sorry Aoife!) We've enjoyed events put on by our parent company Boundless – including their summer party (escape room) and glam Christmas event at The Grand in Brighton. There's heated debates in the office on crisps, and which side of a Digestive biscuit is the 'top' (George). And yet I'd love there to be more, on the average days which of course make up most days. It's something our Wellbeing team are specifically looking into...

Or is it just me? As Parliament Hill's very own David Brent? If so, thanks everyone for indulging me. Or was it just the other idiots who were enthusiastic? In which case, what about the poor non-idiots who've had to play along?

Jamie has shared some insights as to why it's important to release that inner idiot. 'One thing COVID has taught us where everyone was pushed into a situation of having to do video conferencing at home, is that everyone has kids, everyone has distractions, not everyone has the perfect home office which looks corporate. But all of that is OK, because that's real life and everyone at the end of the day is just a human being. I liken this to being yourself, having fun and not putting a fake mask on at work. It's pretending and trying to fit in a stereotype that has been set by previous generations, of the way we 'should behave' at work. Releasing your inner idiot or being yourself, puts you in the state of mind and position to be as creative and value driven as you can be. If we are controlled or feel we have to act a certain way, we will unlikely feel comfortable enough or in the right state of mind to truly push a role or whatever it is, into being the best it can be. We will always feel we have to conform to a standard, which is set at the top of an organisation. Having fun, being relaxed, being open and feeling comfortable to speak our minds, is how we get the best of ourselves and our team. It's what motivates people to put in more than the bare minimum, and to make work part of our life rather than thing we have to do to pay the rent/mortgage'.

I believe it contributes to making stronger teams, and is certainly a cherished part of our shared history. People still talk about the legendary time years ago that Tom allegedly beat me 21-0 at table tennis. Rarely has an imagined event in human history brought so much joy to so many. Sadly, most of the apparent 'witnesses' keep disappearing...

For all my enthusiasm for the philosophy of releasing one's inner idiot ('Idiophilism'? 'Idiotology'?), the fact remains that it's different now for those companies where team members are not face-to-face every day of the week. Or who use shared working environments. And maybe it's just harder for companies beyond a certain size.

We all need to work harder and continue to adapt our 'idiotology' in this hybrid model, to create a culture where employees feel respected and connected. So, whether you are a company of weekly quizzers, a yearly summer sports day or a monthly film club – continue to connect and share.

*That's a compliment

If you would like to get in touch with Andrew directly please click here .

Andrew would like to thank Parliament Hill employees past and present, but in particular the contributors quoted; Rob Williams, Ellen Waters, Rita Walters, Hayley Bright, Lisa Finch, Melanie Orvis, Jamie Capaldi, Katie Alvarez, Josh Defty and Georgia Hallgalley.


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