What a difference six months makes. Back in March, the Government drummed into all of us the importance of working from home in order to protect the NHS. Little did they know they’d unwittingly started a revolution, and one they’re now desperate to stop.
After threatening work-from-homers with the stick of looming redundancy, they’ve now offered us up an interesting choice of carrot: wheeling out jolly Jeremy Hunt to remind us what a lot of lolz we’ve been missing by toiling alone in our PJs on the sofa.
But as Jeremy discussed the “fizz and excitement that you get in a really good workplace” on Sky News this week, I nearly fell off my £5 Ikea home office chair in horror. Could this really be the same Jeremy that I worked for back in the summer of 1995, when he was in the early stages of setting up his publishing business?
There are many words I could use to describe the few months I spent working with him and his partner Mike Elms, but “fizz and excitement” aren’t among them. It was a serious workplace.
I spotted the advert for the role of Editorial Assistant at his company, then called Elms Hunt International, in Oxford University jobs mag The Bridge. The publication was the perfect place for budding entrepreneurs to advertise for cheap but well-educated labour.
Jeremy did the interview, and offered me the job when I called him from a crackly payphone en route to a rowing regatta in Ghent. The incipient Elms-Hunt empire – which eventually made Jeremy £14 million – was based in small offices not far from the river in Strand on the Green, Chiswick. I was installed in a room with Mike and Jeremy, while his IT consultancy Profile PR operated out of a room opposite.
I’d spent the previous few months interning in Soho, and the quaintness of Strand on the Green was a shock to my 24-year-old system – there were no Cocktail Fridays, or after-work drinks in trendy bars, just a sad man delivering soggy sarnies on a bike. It was a hot summer, and I used to main-line Coke in the afternoon simply to stay awake.
My idealistic left-wing self reeled at the fact I was to submit invoices – for five days a week, full-time office-based work – rather than be put through the books. I obliged, for the princely sum of £175 a week.
I was hired to fill in the gaps left by the editor of two guides, who, ironically, worked from home. It was an ideal first job, as I ended up flatplanning, writing and subbing on both titles, called The London Course Guide and The London Sports and Fitness Guide, as well as calling in the artwork for the adverts.
It would be unfair of me not to reveal that both Jeremy and Mike worked incredibly hard to get their company off the ground. Jeremy had returned from TEFL teaching in Japan, and had the bright idea of publishing a guide to English language schools in London.
They spent their days phoning round schools and gyms persuading them to advertise.
It’s bizarre to think that at the time, Jeremy was only 28. He looked, dressed and sounded exactly the same as he does now. To me, he might as well have come from a different planet. I was a party-loving, diehard Labour voter, who went rowing twice a day, and he spent his weekends at Conservative Party shindigs. I was horrified when he told me that he never travelled on trains or London Transport if he could help it, preferring to go everywhere by car.
He made no secret of his political ambition, and I wondered naively how someone so out of touch with the ordinary man on the street would want to be an MP. And while he was clearly clever, he wasn’t especially charismatic.
There was no banter, not much actual fun and the most excitement I recall happened on the day an elderly resident crashed their car into the row of shops in front of the office. But we gelled together well as a team.
On one occasion, I remember being told off for making a mistake in the flatplan – putting an advert on the left rather than right-hand side. “That’s your fault, Lebby,” Jeremy blustered as I cringed on the other side of the room.
But aside from that remark, he was a benign boss, and I discovered starting out in a small company was a good way to learn the ropes. Jeremy wasn’t patronising and involved me in creative decisions.
In particular, I remember us agonising over the wording for the London Course Guide Tube ads. It was engagingly amateur (“Everything you need to help you choose the right course”), which is how I’d sum up my impression of Jeremy. It was rather reassuring to someone straight out of Uni, as I could see how both he and Mike were winging it – very successfully as it turned out.
It seemed less amusing when Jeremy became Health Secretary. Culture Secretary, I could get my head around, but not Health. It seemed inconceivable to me that this slightly bumbling, awkward character could be in charge of the NHS.
But then I never got to see his ruthless side. My time at EHI ended with a lovely dinner at Julie’s in Notting Hill, which marked the fact, I felt, that I’d bonded with both Mike and Jeremy.
He offered me a full-time job, but I was determined to scarper to Spain. On my return in 1997, I went for an interview for a role at their swanky new offices in Kew. But I sensed the moment was gone – the London Course Guide had been replaced by HotCourses, a competitor to Floodlight, and I wasn’t enticed by the thought of tedious data entry at £14K pa.
It seems I made the right decision: in 2012, a disgruntled ex-employee of Jeremy’s spilled the beans in an article for The Quietus. Luke Turner talked about working for Hotcourses as the “worst three years” of his life, adding, “When a deadline approached, we were expected to work late into the night for no overtime or recompense. Rarely were we thanked for our labours.”
While my time working with Jeremy can’t back up his dreamy account of a workplace being a hub of sparky creativity, super-bantz and non-stop fun, I agree with his point about the lure of WFH wearing off after a while. This revolution has been built on six months of sunshine, but winter is coming.
I was a magazine editor for 15 years and have been working from home for two. As much as I love the freedom, I couldn’t imagine putting together a publication without face-to-face interaction.
My time spent working with Jeremy was short, but I remember it intensely. The osmosis of being in the office listening to senior colleagues is what young people working from home will miss out on. It’s this Jeremy should be talking about, not banter.