For influence, abandon your desk

Thomas Barta TryThisBlog
By Thomas Barta
Last updated: October 29, 2018

Many leaders still spend most of their time in the office, but the most important part of their role – creating organizational change – requires face-to-face contact with those outside their department.

I’m writing this column from home. Five years ago, we converted the top floor of our house into an office. It’s the place where I design keynotes and write invoices. However, most of the time I’m out and about speaking at conferences, nudging business leaders to speed up their firms’ transformations.

Broadly speaking, I cut my working week into ‘tap time’ (one-to-one influencing), ‘prep time’ (writing) and ‘crap time’ (invoices, email admin). In a good week, I get to 80% tap time. In a bad week, it’s 10%. Given I’m rarely at home, that office is probably a waste of space – well, I’m in the business of change, and I can’t make change happen from my desk.

More leaders than ever want workplace flexibility, but the current debate is misguided. Don’t get me wrong: I love family time. But work flexibility in a central job like marketing shouldn’t foremost be about working from home or not. It should be about working in the right places. And most of the time, that right place is neither the desk nor the home; it is face-to-face with customers and colleagues, to influence their behaviour.

It has never been less appealing to go to the office. Especially in the clogged-up centres of London, Paris or New York, it is a pain. The commute is long, and who wants to be seen with a Southern Trains Annual Gold Card?

Firms, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, have now reduced offices to lines of desks, as if executives were egg-laying cage hens. All of this is to increase so-called ‘collaboration’ (or to bring down office costs – you choose the reason). No matter how many football tables the new CEO puts in, most offices aren’t exactly fun places to work in.

At the same time, executives want more flexibility – to look after their family, to pursue other interests, or simply to escape the office craze. WeWork and co can’t find property fast enough to meet demand. And it’s hard to buy a cappuccino without having to stare at armies of MacBook nomads, typing into their machines next to the barista.

In reality, firms struggle to make working at home ‘work’. In 2017, IBM sent a shockwave through its global teams; once a model for ‘telecommuting’ (IBM = ‘I’m by myself’), the firm’s new CEO Ginni Rometty completely reversed the model. People had 30 days to join offices again in Atlanta, Austin, Boston, New York or San Francisco, or leave the company.

Yahoo, Aetna, and others made similar moves. Granted, these tech firms’ models of remote working were extremes – allowing people to work from wherever, whenever. But in each case, the CEO explanation read similarly: the need for more innovation and collaboration.

Here’s the paradox: most leaders are mandated to come to the office but then spend most of their day on prep time and crap time, instead of doing what matters most, tap time: innovating, collaborating and influencing. That’s lots of office space and family time wasted.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve visited hundreds of marketing offices. The picture was similar throughout: people sitting next to one another tied to their screen, busy emailing colleagues and doing plenty of administrative work. Those absent were in internal marketing meetings.

Marketing, it seems, happens inside the marketing silo. Along the same lines, a recent study confirmed that just half of employees’ work hours in large US companies are spent on productive activities.


Influential leaders can’t really spend much time at their desks. In 2017, Patrick Barwise and I published one of the most read McKinsey Quarterly leadership articles. Based on our extensive research for our book, The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader, the article proves that mobilising bosses and colleagues are among the most important things leaders can do for success.

That’s especially true for marketers. Just think about the day-to-day marketing issues. The product needs changing? Talk to product development. Prices are eroding? Contact sales. Service issues? Talk to after-sales. Need a bigger budget? Here’s the CFO’s number. Want to accelerate this launch? Meet the production team. Update the logo? See the CEO (then, meet everybody and their brother). Want a better customer experience? Get in touch with the people creating it today (basically, everybody in the company).

During my time as a marketer, my firm once awarded the most successful key account manager of the year. I still remember the CEO introducing him with these words: “How can you spot the best key account manager on the team? Their office is always empty.”

Of course, some tasks, like running online campaigns or data-mining, could be easily done from anywhere in the world. But for the bulk of the work, marketers have to engage directly with customers or with colleagues. The 12 Powers research clearly confirms that marketers who leave their desk and walk the halls to make business priorities happen have more business and career success.

In marketing and sales, what counts is spending time influencing customers – outside and inside. No desk needed.


The push for more workplace flexibility is great. Let’s use the opportunity to give marketers more freedom while increasing their impact. The condition? Marketers must be crystal clear about where they need to be for influence. And that may be neither at home nor at the office desk.

The number one priority for every marketer is to influence customers and colleagues, to generate profitable revenue. Ideally, that’s 80% of work time. This work usually requires no desk. This is mostly tap time, which happens out and about, with customers or with colleagues.

Then there’s crap time – the glorious joys of writing expense reports and scheduling meetings. Often unavoidable. Again, no office desk is needed. Home, beach, train; you choose.

That leaves the marketing office for the important collaborative prep time: innovating new products, designing powerful campaigns, sharing important customer insights and strategising how to win in the market. These marketing offices wouldn’t be like egg farms. They would be creative meeting spaces where the marketing team pulls together.

If marketers got their workplace priorities right, they would end up more powerful – and they would see their families more too.

(From my Marketing Week column).