I like to ride bikes [ Andy ] and I’m awestruck by people that ride them well. I’ve just finished watching a 3 week stage race – La Vuelta – Spain’s equivalent to the Tour de France. La Vuelta is often a much more interesting contest. It’s the third and final ‘grand tour’ of the year, and legs and minds are tired. For riders that haven’t achieved all they’d hoped, it’s a bit of a Hail Mary. Teams and competitors go into it knowing it’s probably their last significant effort of the year. They can win big, lose very little, and after that comes rest. There’s time with friends and family, and a switch of routines focused on reflection and recovery. They get to reset goals, freshen up training plans, and build back their reserves of power and endurance out of the public glare and the pressure of competition.
"No one can maintain the level of effort and focus for peak performance all year round."
Chatting this through with the team over a coffee the other day, and this struck us like a thunderbolt: cycling – pressured and professional often the point of cynicism – has its seasons. Or rather, the riders do. They have to. No one can maintain the level of effort and focus required – physical and mental – all year round. And, zooming out, all sports people do, for exactly the same reasons. But people in business typically don’t. And when you hold up that contrast, isn’t the paradox obvious, interesting and disturbing?
Work has undergone a radical shake-up over the last few years with the 9-5 commute replaced by hybrid for many of us. But the new work patterns still support the idea that we need to keep up an unwavering level of activity for twelve months of the year, give or take a few weeks of holiday.
But what if we didn’t? What if we’d feel better, and, coincidentally, be more productive overall, if we took a leaf out of the natural world by living more seasonally?
The importance of rest
I’m a keen gardener [ Sharon ] and I understand the necessity of giving ourselves time to plant, to grow, to harvest and time for the soil to rest and replenish.
Many of us focus exclusively on the first three and forget the importance of rest in the cycle. There’s a constant pressure to come up with new ideas, to nurture client relationships, to build on successes. That’s business, right? But to keep doing that without a real break leads to the law of diminishing returns.
It’s like planting the same seeds all year long in the same patch of earth without feeding the soil or taking any notice of the weather. Try planting chilli seeds in the dank cold December ground, and you’ll experience the futility of not paying attention to the growing season.
Rest is a tricky one for businesses to countenance. That’s because it looks and feels like the opposite of productivity. And sometimes it is. Sometimes rest is being intentionally switched off. Proper sleep and relaxation is essential to our wellbeing.
But under the banner of ‘rest’ comes a lot of other things that feed not only our energy but also our productivity over the long term. Rest can also be found in balance, play and celebration. If you don’t give yourself time to slow down and enjoy life, you’ll find that stress creeps in and everything starts feeling a lot harder.
"A four day week still plays to the always-on mentality of a business"
Living more seasonally
What might a more seasonally attuned business look like? For starters, a four or at least a four and half day week is far more common than it was a couple of years ago. One of the fallouts from the great hybrid experiment is the realisation that we can get stuff done very effectively away from the office. And a three day weekend gives much more opportunity to rest and recharge than the traditional two days.
A four day week is good for personal wellbeing, but it still plays into the overall ‘always on’ mentality of a business. It makes you fitter for an endurance race where the finishing line keeps getting moved further and further away.
What if the whole business took a more seasonal approach? Sports teams organise themselves to allow their athletes to be seasonal, after all. How would it be if a business took a dedicated period for rest and recuperation? Everyone, all together? Not exactly hibernation, but a time when the focus of activities changed from delivery and consumption to reflection and renewal. How much stronger might a business emerge if everyone was fully rested and recharged? More able to relax, think clearly, be creative, and connect with their purpose.
But what about your clients?
That all sounds very good in theory, but what about the clients? In many businesses, and certainly in the agency world, the pace is set by the client’s timetable. Projects roll in step with their needs and delivery dates, which are often set in stone, and sometimes last minute. Could you really say, ‘sorry, we’re closed’ to a valuable client?
"Maybe it's just a matter of scheduling and good, open communication."
Perhaps you can. Perhaps this is a case where smaller businesses can set the pace for the larger ones. Say, for argument’s sake, you’ve decided that your business is going to take two seasonal breaks per year. You’re not going to work in August. And you’re going to close down for two weeks over Christmas. Making that happen is a matter of scheduling and good open communication. Maybe the client will be pleased that you’re being proactive, and they’ll welcome the break too.
We chatted to the owner of a great Welsh agency last week who had done just that. She told us that clients were relieved rather than unhappy about an August shutdown. Everyone wants to step off the hamster wheel, and sometimes you can be the one who makes the first move.
Could it go large?
In larger organisations, does seasonality get harder or easier? Could sales people not sell for a month? Marketers not market? Feels like a nonsense at first glance – but think about how naturally seasonal many markets are by nature. Car sales peak around the twice-yearly issue of date-stamped vehicle registration plates, for instance. And think about how digital and automated so much of the marketing and sales journey has become. As well as the positive contribution that AI could make here?
"Natural market seasonality, automation and AI as a co-pilot: maybe this thing does have legs?"
Finally, bear in mind that every innovation in the workplace and employment, from annual leave entitlement, to the 37.5 hour week, to parental leave, to hybrid working – all of these sent culture shocks through organisations. Yet they all deliver benefits. And many were adopted early by countries whose productivity easily outstrips the UK’s, and even the US. Interesting.
We realise we’ve more questions than answers here. Be great to hear what you think….