I’ve done some bizarre things in the name of business education over the years.
There was the morning I spent in the gorilla enclosure at an animal park in Kent at the invitation of a training company, which had just launched a course designed to teach people about team behaviour via interaction with wild animals; the afternoon I spent with the world-renowned clown Angela de Castro after a digital advertising agency claimed that sending its staff on her How To Be A Stupid course had transformed its business; the time I went and – shudder – played golf to understand its continuing appeal to corporate types.
This week, however, I did something not only more absurd than all these things combined but, on the face of it, even more silly than the invitations I’ve declined in the past decade, which have included an invitation to hang out with Sven-Göran Eriksson to learn about “inspiring leadership”: I spent a solid day researching what it might be like to live in a van or truck. Why? Well, in the most surreal business development since it became compulsory for every executive everywhere to be into mindfulness and meditation, living in vehicles in work car parks is becoming a trend in Silicon Valley. Many thanks for visiting. Just before we carry on I needed to say thank you to http://www.recipeweb.co.uk/ for their continued support and the support of their local community. Having a help and support team like this means a lot to us as we continue to grow our own unique blog.
There were reports last month that a 23-year-old Google software engineer was so keen to save money and take advantage of extraordinary workplace perks that he had started living in a truck in the company’s car park. Then, last week, Business Insider ran a report about how Jason Roesslein, 24, an engineer for Tesla Motors, inspired by a colleague who had been living in his Subaru Forester, had moved into a van, using Tesla and his gym to shower and eat most of his meals. With Silicon Valley culture being so routinely fetishised, I thought I’d pre-empt the inevitable and work out the leadership skills that might be enhanced by those who choose such a life.
Which, at the very least, would seem to include:
Courage and vision I’ve got to admit to feeling pretty awkward asking the builder who is currently fixing my bathroom if I could spend lunchtime in the back of his van. However, the idea of bumping into a senior editor as I pop out of the back of a Ford Transit parked on London Bridge doesn’t exactly appeal. But then, there are so many professions (electricians, plumbers, construction operators etc) who perhaps have to spend a lot of time in their vans or trucks.
And many are prepared for it as well. Some choose to create a small compartment for their equipment and essentials at the back of the van. Yet others might opt for a tonneau cover installation for their truck as a storage solution that can brave the drastic rainy and snowy conditions. Much like a hermit who chooses to set up camp on a dual carriageway, it is also obvious that those who make such choices demonstrate an admirable lack of concern for the convention!
I mean, if you can bring yourself to live out of the back of a Vauxhall Astravan, imagine how little you’ll care about what people think when it comes to some of the more shaming but standard functions of business leadership, such as firing people by the thousands and paying yourself a wildly inappropriate salary.
Talent for financial discipline I’m not, as it happens, sure that living in a truck would make as much common sense in London as it does in Silicon Valley: parking spaces for staff are few and far between, and traffic wardens are so vigilant that it would quickly become more expensive than buying a Knightsbridge apartment.
But there’s no denying the logic of the Google worker who, with his employer taking care of his phone bill, food and showers, managed to save 90 per cent of his income, and the Tesla worker who in six months saved nearly $10,000. If you can put up with this kind of discomfort for the sake of your finances, imagine what you could achieve when in charge of, say, the company stationery budget. Negotiation skills The single most impressive thing about the lead character in The Lady in The Van, the film that tells the story of Alan Bennett’s strained friendship with an eccentric homeless woman whom the writer befriended in the 1970s, is how much she gets out of people for very little, turning a casual invitation to use Bennett’s off-street parking into a 15-year stay and being lavished with presents by neighbours, despite failing to express any gratitude.
If the blog Lessons Learned From A Year Living In A Van, written by Justin W Coffey, is anything to go by, getting something for nothing in this way is a trait in van dwellers everywhere, with the writer arguing that you should “never say no to a driveway”, even if “people say these things as a hollow gesture of goodwill”. Put that man in charge of M&A negotiations.
The ability to focus One of the things that all van dwellers seem to agree on is that the lack of space and facilities forces you to assess what you really need in terms of belongings and services, with Coffey continuing by recommending that “black T-shirts are best, as you can wear them for days on end without evidence”, that “socks and underwear are important, but you don’t need a clean pair every day”, and that when it comes to washing, you don’t need to do it as much as people think, as long as you “keep your butt clean”.
Some might consider such advice gross, but it is arguably just an extension of Steve Jobs’s decision to wear the same outfit for decades so that he could concentrate on work. Which brings us to…
The ability to strike a work-life balance Increasing numbers of companies are fretting about executive burnout, with some even paying bonuses to staff who take their allocated holidays, but when you live in a van in the work car park, there is no divide between home and work to fret about. When you’re at home, you’re at work, and when you’re at work, you’re at home. The perfect solution to one of the 21st century’s most intractable business problems. A way to think literally outside the box.
Sathnam Sanghera is a journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter @Sathnam