Denise Kingsmill: A slow summer in the city

August is a time for personal indulgence, while preparing for the onslaught of work come September.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

This year, we are spending the summer at home in London. This is partly in response to the recession. It just doesn't seem like the time to be splashing out on villas in Tuscany and, frankly, credit-crunch holidays such as cycling around the Lake District or camping in the Dordogne do not appeal to me either. I'd rather stay at home.

But it is mostly because my husband has just launched a business and he does not want to leave his fledgling company to go on holiday. Despite being armed to the teeth with laptops, Black-Berrys and mobiles, he felt that in these early days of the new, a digital media business, distance working just isn't the same as putting in the hours at the office.

It may seem like the height of optimism or foolishness, depending on your point of view, to start a venture in the middle of the worst downturn since the last Ice Age, but - as he bravely puts it - if you can just survive in these tough times, you are bound to succeed in the upturn that will inevitably come. Unlike me, he will be working flat out this summer.

Although London does not close down completely in August - as does Paris, where the entire population seems to shut up shop and decamp to la plage - the pace and momentum of business in the city definitely slows over the summer. This seems to have been the case even more than usual this year, as the summer break is extended for many. In early July, I noticed that I was getting e-mails suggesting meetings 'after the summer', and by mid-July the automated holiday response was common.

The Parliamentary recess started on 21 July, the courts have closed, and most companies don't have board meetings in August unless things go very wrong. Meetings are not arranged because key people are away, deadlines are extended and decisions delayed. Public transport is easier, traffic much less congested with all the yummy mummies off the roads, and walking to the office through the London parks can be a delight.

Summer at work is the time to tackle the mundane tasks that you have been putting off all year: clearing, tidying and sorting. It can also be an opportunity to reflect, plan and strategise. There's much to recommend just ticking over during August and preparing for the real start to the business year.

Although working over the summer need not be a hardship, this year I plan to emulate the French and take the whole of August off for the first time in my working life. I will catch up with friends, read the mountain of books by my bedside, and generally power down. The eight-week summer season of the BBC Proms, the largest and most democratic music festival in the world, is well under way, and I plan to take in as many of the amazingly varied concerts as possible.

I'll try to remember that there is life outside work and to forget about the grim economic environment as best I can until September, when I hope to emerge refreshed and renewed.

I wish I'd been able to do this when my children were small. In those days, I had less control over my working life than today. Work/life balance had not yet been invented, and flexible working was a distant dream. The juggling of a full-time job with the needs of bored children over a long hot summer is one feature of parenthood that I am grateful is long past.

The summer presents particular challenges for working parents. The seven-week state-school holiday - predicated on a long-gone agricultural heritage when children were needed on the farm to help with the harvest - creates a childcare nightmare. And private-school holidays are even longer.

The idyllic Swallows and Amazons version of summer holidays where children run joyously free in the countryside does not translate easily into the modern urban environment. After the structured routines of the school day, the holidays loom like an empty void for parents and children alike. It is a daunting task to find enough supervised activities to engage the little darlings without risk of injury or mayhem.

In the US, children have a 13-week summer break. This can be a real problem for working parents who, in common with most workers in the US, get barely two weeks' holiday a year. Many children spend a large part of the holiday in summer camp, a uniquely American institution that, regrettably, is not widely available here. However, President Obama and his advisers have become concerned about the educational deficit they observe resulting from the long absence of pupils from school, as the children forget over the summer months much of what they have learned during the school year.

The US Department of Education is considering introducing a fourth term, to reduce the length of school holidays and spread them more evenly over the whole school year. This idea has been mooted periodically in the UK too, but has been fiercely resisted by teachers' unions.

The long holidays and short days enjoyed by teachers mean that by most people's standards they are working part-time. There has been a significant increase in the numbers of applications for teacher-training places since the onset of the recession, as many seek the greater security of public-sector work. This could be an appropriate time to increase the length of the school day as well as the school year, which could pay educational dividends.

Even if it meant the end of the long summers for teachers and children, it would certainly be a boon to working parents.

Baroness Kingsmill CBE has been a non-executive director of plc, private, charitable, arts and government boards. She is a non-executive director of British Airways.

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