The Sunday Telegraph
‘People are desperate to get back to the office’
As a Whitehall leak suggests home working is here to stay, Michelle Mone tells Victoria Lambert why she’s banking on a reversal
No one is looking forward to office life again more than Baroness Mone of Mayfair. Like many entrepreneurs up and down the country, she has not taken her foot off the accelerator during the pandemic. Instead, the Baroness – better known as businesswoman Michelle Mone, who made her bra company Ultimo into a multi-million global brand in the 1990s – is confident that, whatever the Government says, working from home will soon fall from fashion.
“As the pandemic started, all of our team were loving working from home” she reflects. “Six months later, they’re saying ‘Please can we come back into the office?’.”
Her expectations mirror those of the big tech companies which – far from planning for a virtual workforce – have been quietly preparing for physical office expansion. Google has taken an extra 70,000 sq ft of space close to its London HQ in King’s Cross, planning for an 80 per cent staff return to the office by September. Amazon too oo intends to return to an “office-centric centric culture” – stating that it “enables es us to invent, collaborate and learn together ogether most effectively”.
This may put them at cross purposes with popular thought t – and even the Government, where there here is an increasing expectation that working from home is here to stay. tay.
Yet outlier businesses and entrepreneurs like Mone, 49, clearly learly sense a reversal is coming. They y can hear the whispers from frustrated ted young people, desperate for the e buzz and prospects of office life.
Cassandra-like, Mone, in particular, rticular, is predicting an evolution – rather her than a revolution – in how and where we work. And she is backing her hunch with a substantial investment.
During the past 18 months, Mone and second husband Doug Barrowman have dreamt up a new type of work environment, based on their own experiences. This reimagining of office life is a new venture called neospace – set in a 22,000 sq ft Aberdeen building and costing £18million – is her and Doug’s vision of how the work environment should be. Space can be taken by large companies as well as individuals. Flexibility is core to the concept, which the pair hope to roll out across the UK.
“We started off thinking about the ideal office space,” Mone explains, “but then Doug said if he was using it, he would want a golf simulator to use after work – so we added one.
“Then I said I wanted a spin room. So we put that in.”
She wanted it to be inspiring. “A café and juice bar, a sauna and steam room. We just kept adding on.”
The place is high tech as well as high spec. Rooms are booked and opened via an app. Broadband is super fast. She thinks it will be a dream environment
‘I was chained to my desk 24/7 and felt like a hamster on a wheel’
for busy start-ups – where masterclasses will teach skills in funding and marketing, with ample space for networking with like-minded peers.
What’s interesting is that this environment reflects not just where Mone is now, but her journey from Glasgow tenement to multi-millionaire peer of the realm.
Because if Mone had one lesson she would teach future budding entrepreneurs, she says, it is to prize the idea of work-life balance – and do less, not more.
Despite having built her company MJM into a £45million or so business by the age of 35, Mone says her one regret is that she worked too hard and left no time for herself.
“If only I was told that as a woman starting out,” says Mone, from her home on the th Isle of Man, “if you do it the opposite opposit way around you will get better results.” resu
Mone adds: ad “My work affected my health, and my mental health in particular. And it affected the business itself too.
“It took every e bit of energy I had. I didn’t have enough rest: just four or five hours of sleep a night as I had to wake up for Hong Kong or whatever. I was chained ch to my desk 24/7 and felt like a hamster on a wheel.”
However How hard she pressed, Mone says she could never achieve achie what she wanted in a day.
Worst W of all, “I didn’t have energy ener for the kids; I felt guilty every ever morning.”
At the time, Mone was married marr to her first husband Michael, Mich whom she had met at the age of 18. The couple were both born in Glasgow although from different sides of the tracks. He was middle-class with an anaesthetist father. Mone’s early upbringing was working-class and impoverished; her mother was a seamstress, her father suffered overnight paralysis – when Mone was 15 – following a spinal disease and was left unable to work.
Although the Mones had three children – Rebecca, Declan and Bethany – as well as building their brand, the marriage failed. As it neared collapse, Mone has said she would drive herself onwards by imagining “my ex-husband whispering in my ear: ‘You’re going to end up back in the ghetto where I rescued you from.’”
Mone was not just burnt out emotionally, she was overweight and unhappily so. “I never used to eat healthily, I never went to a gym.”
She also gradually gained eight and a half stone, something that clearly stung – not least as her marketing strategy for Ultimo was based on the idealised “perfect” female appearance; model and wife of Rod Stewart Penny Lancaster was famously replaced – when her contract ran out – by supermodel and most-recent ex-wife of Rod Stewart, Rachel Hunter.
That’s not how Mone looks now though, having shed the excess baggage of husband number one in 2011 and then the extra personal poundage gained during their married life, plus an extra stone and a half during lockdown. She is svelte and glamorous with the added confidence that being made a life peer by David Cameron in 2015 would give you.
Moreover, she is now loved-up with husband number two: Doug is a fellow entrepreneur whose wealth dwarfs hers – think private jets and Picassos – though their early business lives are similar. Barrowman was running paintball sites by the age of 20. Mone had 17 teenagers working for her by the age of 12, delivering newspapers. For a wedding present, Mone says: “What do you give the man who has everything?” She decided an £80,000 racehorse called Monbeg Genius fitted the bill.
The couple have yet to see him run of course because – thanks to Covid – racing is still off.
But Mone would be the first to acknowledge this is hardly a sacrifice compared with what most people have been through although both have had the illness.
“Doug got it first,” she says, “back in February last year on his stag do in Verbier. All the husbands came back feeling ill and the wives thought it was just a consequence of overdoing it.”
For Mone, though, the illness was more recent. Despite the stringent precautions which have kept life on the Isle of Man fairly normal, the virus stole over via the Steam Packet. At a 16-strong dinner party on March 1 this year for Doug’s birthday, all the guests succumbed. Two subsequently needed hospital treatment.
Mone herself came down with Covid four days after the party, on March 5 – “I won’t forget that day,” she says. “You think you are invincible. That you are in the gym every day and have no underlying issues, that if you get it, you will fight it.
“But oh my god, it was dreadful. One night, my husband nearly called 999. I was frightened, panicked that if I slept I wouldn’t have been able to breathe.
“My temperature was so high I had towels over my body and was in the bath with ice cold water trying to cool down. That hit me. What a serious virus it is for the elderly. How can they get through this?”
For Mone, the illness lasted six weeks, she estimates; even now, she is not fully well. She is scared to get the vaccine too soon in case the sideeffects are severe.
Lockdown has also meant that Mone has not spent time in London at the House of Lords. She was recently one of the peers castigated for not taking up diversity training, a position Mone has challenged claiming she did not receive the correct email but has since booked the session.
Mone will not talk about Westminster today but she is unfussed by the publicity. “I know you won’t get it good all the time, or bad all the time.”
She points out: “I won’t have people making up total lies. Or infringements of my patents. But I follow my parents’ advice – I pick my battles.”
Clearly those battles aren’t with Doug. During lockdown, the couple took to walking their three cocker spaniel puppies called Rusty, Rocky and Rory, and working out three times a day in their garden using “just a couple of mats and weights”. Their long Monopoly sessions sound frighteningly competitive.
How is this marriage different from her last? “I wanted us to be pals. At this age, you take marriage seriously and take your time.” She thinks they are unusual as “an entrepreneurial wife and husband – we are very very similar. We don’t think and talk business all the time, but we do a lot.”
Mone adds: “I’m the happiest I have been. It’s like in The Lion King, it’s the Circle of Life; we are all meant not to have the perfect life. We have to experience different things.”
Steering back to neospace, she makes the connection with the value of accumulated knowledge. “Right now, we need everyone coming together and helping one another to recover. We can’t blame the pandemic on the Government, we are all in it together.” She emphasises that part of this depends on self-care. “I am the healthiest and fittest and youngest I have ever felt in my life. If you put effort in for you, you can cope with stress.”