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Vox pop: can agencies make a success of flexible working?

In light of Publicis Group’s recent announcement on rolling-out a flexible working culture across its UK operations, The Drum Network asked its member agencies how they are addressing the challenges of modern working life...

 

Jonny Tooze of Lab
 
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Jonny Tooze, founder and CEO, Lab

Like many others in our industry, Publicis Groupe have recognised that the way we work needs to change. The traditional 9-to-5 is an outdated concept, and it’s essential that we begin to find new ways to manage our time.

Back in July last year, we launched a four-day working week for all Lab staff, as our own way of addressing the need to create more balance for our people.

As an agency, we see the replacement of human workers with technology as inevitable and not necessarily a bad thing: freeing the human race of the shackles of labour. We know it’s something to get ready for, as it’s coming. Our idea was to embrace this change and begin to influence the world in positive ways to make sure we’re ready for it.

Our belief was that a happier workforce would be more productive, and also that people would use their time more wisely knowing that they had less of it, so we were confident that productivity would not be impacted - and that the quality of our output for clients would be improved.

Reduced work time can occasionally lead to additional stress, and we’ve had to work on improving communication to ensure everything runs smoothly, but generally it’s been a really positive experience. Our productivity has remained constant and our clients are happy. We get the long weekend feeling every week, and our people are doing more of the things that they love. It’s definitely a model that other agencies should consider adopting.

 

Rideway's Amy Ireson
 
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Amy Ireson, HR advisor, Ridgeway

As an agency our people are our business, so it is vital that our employees are happy, committed and productive. Flexible working is something that we understand our people need to ensure they can achieve the work-life balance they require.  It’s no secret that good digital talent is hard to come by so for us to attract the best we have always been creative and open-minded about flexibility.

13% of our employees work a reduced or compressed week in order to fit around childcare, professional qualifications or to simply pursue a passion. Empowering our employees to work in new ways is important to us and something we actually want to encourage.

 

Rebecca Driscoll of Rawnet.
 
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Rebecca Driscoll, head of talent & development, Rawnet 

Flexible working, including remote working and the ability to work flexible hours, was formally introduced at Rawnet in January 2017 and we have seen an increase in employee morale, engagement and commitment to the organisation, plus improved work/life balance.

In an industry that’s currently a job seekers market, we needed to look at ways to differentiate our offering when seeking candidates for hard-to-recruit-for roles, particularly developers. Though it’s not a new concept, offering flexibility is appealing to job seekers and continues to grow in popularity as a benefit.

We now have a significant uptake with flexible working, with our employees able to choose how and where they want to work. Some find that they are more productive in their own environment, so they choose to work from home. Others wish to avoid rush hour to reduce the amount of time and stress caused by commuting to work on a daily basis. Some of our employees are fully remote and based all around the world, in places such as Poland, Uruguay and Portugal.

The benefits to Rawnet are that it allows us to achieve tangible improvements to our recruitment processes and overall employee relations. There has been such a positive impact on employee engagement, motivation and loyalty since we introduced flexible working. Additionally, it has been cited as a factor in employees staying with us on a long-term basis. We trust our employees to take accountability of their own workload and time management to get things done.

It’s obvious to say but if you treat your employees like adults – and show real trust - they react in a similar way, producing better result.

 

Geoff Griffiths
 
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Geoff Griffiths, managing director, Builtvisible

To me, ‘flexible working’ is just one way that agencies try to facilitate a healthy work-life balance. On its own, it is merely a tactic and is useless and potentially toxic unless incorporated in to wider cultural and operational commitments from agency leaders to achieve balance across the board.

I wrote about this recently and no agency will be able to roll out flexible working successfully (i.e. to the benefit of all parties – business, agency staff and clients) in any form until it has built two things; a clear, defined set of accountable values that dictate how the business operates, and a truly robust resourcing model that provides the detail required to understand how time is used.

Without a clear value set (and I mean a non-buzzwordy, company-specific value set ideally garnered from the front-lines of your business) you have nothing to pin flexible working to in terms of why it works for you and how it fits with your organization.

Without a robust and detailed resourcing model you will lack the control required to make sure people have balance in the first place. Think building in role-specific utilisation targets, positive and negative tolerances and other mechanisms that mean work-life balance is actually factored in to your business model before you even start to think about how this renders itself as ‘flexible working’.

 

Sophie Scott-Jones of Signal.
 
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Sophie Scott-Jones, HR manager, Signal

At Signal we have four active principles (or signals) that guide us in the way we work - one is that 'flexible working lets people love their lives'. 

Our purpose is to be the place where our people do the best work of their careers, and we know that won't be possible if they can't fit their work around their life. But we also know that everyone's lives are different. 

Which is why we don't believe in a rulebook or a one-size-fits-all approach. That means that the company considers a whole range of working patterns, from compressed hours to work from home days and part time working. 

Every application is considered on the impact it will have on clients and colleagues but we do our best to accommodate wherever we can.

 

RocketMill - Sam Garrity
 
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Sam Garrity, chief executive, RocketMill

It’s not enough to just provide flexibility. Providing flexibility simply means a business is conforming to a view that we all lead blended lives. Lives where, due to technological changes, we are simultaneously existing in our personal and professional lives.

Some will say tech enables flexibility. I think most people are struggling to find balance in an always-on life. We’ve always had families and careers; however tech, such as smart phones, have meant that these parts of our lives are now blended.

I feel it’s imperative that agencies deliver flexible working options for staff, which we almost all do, however we need to address the broader challenges. This means making sure you set expectations with your staff around digital communication. Giving them space to breathe, to switch off, to commit fully to external pursuits, and to enjoy friends and family. This means working to address client expectations on how and when your agency staff will communicate.

And finally, it means empowering your staff through education, in areas such as mindfulness and effective working patterns, so that they can take back control – and balance their lives.

 

Think Jam Jackie
 
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Jackie Thompson, HR director, Think Jam

Flexible working for us is about finding a way for the needs of the business and our team’s personal priorities to blend successfully.

Mums and dads obviously want to spend time with their children. That's a no brainer. Others in our team are doing university courses, or pursuing a passion project, so work a variety of working patterns. At the core of this is a belief that it doesn't matter to us where and when the piece of work is done, as long as it is brilliant and on time.

We call ourselves the JamFam which means that whether the chips are up or down, we have each other’s back. Part of that is our commitment to nurture and develop people, regardless of role or experience, to be the best they can be. The 9 to 5 doesn’t work for all, so we personalise.

 

Matt Grey on Invnt
 
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Matt Grey, director of new business – EMEA, Invnt

The most creative ideas do not often come from sitting in an office environment, and we tend to be more productive when we have the opportunity to change things up, whether it’s working from home a few days a week, or getting outside in the great outdoors, exploring art exhibitions, pop-ups and immersive installations to gain some fresh creative inspiration for a pitch or client project.

With external factors like the increasing cost of living, which sees many of us move further away from our central London offices, and it becoming more normal to have both parents in full-time employment, flexible working is essential as it allows us to manage these multiple commitments simultaneously. 

At the end of the day it’s all about accountability – the most important thing is that employees fulfil their responsibilities each day and contribute positively to the company culture, irrespective of where they actually sit.

Invnt recognises that people have different commitments and requirements in their roles – and being global, we reside in various different locations. The agency subsequently has a flexible hours and flexible dress code approach.

When we come across a wicked smart, fearless, talented individual that embodies our challenger mentality, we’ll aim to accommodate them as we want to nurture the next generation of talent. Our smartphones, apps like Slack and conference call providers allow us to connect with one another regardless of where we are, so we curate global teams for projects and ensure there’s always someone working on a client’s event. This structure enables us to collaborate and learn from one another across borders and time zones.

It’s more difficult than ever to achieve a work life balance today, so at Invnt we advocate for the ‘work-life blend’ model and have introduced ‘chill days.’ In the lead up to an event our project teams will often work longer hours and away from home, so to make up for this our tribe members are able to take some extra time off to rest and recuperate once the event wraps up. This means we’re able to deliver events seamlessly for our clients and ensures we don’t burn out.

 

Audrey Moir of Coolr
 
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Audrey Moir, director of operations, Coolr

At Coolr, we like to do things differently. And that doesn’t just apply to our record-breaking client work. We use Workplace by Facebook to communicate and collaborate internally, company-wide and at the team-level – and we help companies leverage the platform to drive business efficiencies and impact in a similar way as it does for us. Being mobile-first, Workplace allows us to stay connected and in-the-know on client and business work, no matter where we are.

As a result, we are extremely flexible in the way we work. 9-5 at a desk is just not realistic in today’s digital age where millennials are taking over the workforce and expect a new way of working. One that allows for frictionless connections, true work-life balance, and a values and community-based approach to work.

We take that to heart and use Workplace as our medium to give our employees that all-important flexibility – all while getting work done. Bottom line: If you’re given the right tools, you can enjoy maximum flexibility, no matter where you are - without having to compromise on the quality of the work or your happiness, personal and professional. We use Workplace to make that happen for us at Coolr.

 

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Saman Mansourpour, managing director, AgencyUK

I think the key words are flexible culture, not flexible working. Culture is far more embracing than just working hours spent in an office.

At AgencyUK, we have always had a disdain for the clock in clock out factory life. We don't pay people to put in 9 to 5. We reward them for results, and that is mostly about them being there for our clients. So we developed a wellbeing programme for all our staff. This encompasses how they work as individuals, in teams and alongside our clients.

We used this as an opportunity to measure how our people work in a variety of situations, and this varied a lot depending on their craft. Strategists, creatives, developers, journalists and client services folk may all work together, but don't always party together - and that's been the age old challenge for agency leadership teams. So by first understanding how they perform best, we were able to facilitate a programme that was flexible to their needs, giving our people the alone time and team time as and when they needed it. It has, so far, improved collaboration yet reduced meetings. It supports more time out of the office, and yet facilitated more organised social events. It has supported a team effort when it comes to client work and yet it has given every individual a sense of ownership.

Our wellness programme supports flexible hours, remote working, flexible holidays, mentorship, social events, health, life balance, even a fruit bowel (and no more biscuits). Does it make us a better place to work? We hope so. Does it make us a stronger team? Definitely. Does it make us future proof? For a time perhaps, but as jobs evolve, so does work and the people that do it. We see our wellness programme as a journey, and as our clients grow, we grow and so will our attitudes to work.

Gavin Sherratt of Mashbo.
 
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Gavin Sherratt, managing director, Mashbo

Two years ago, we noticed a recurring issue of people coming in late so we decided to work out why it was happening so we could address the cause.

The reasons were varied; lifestyle demands, mental health issues and even team members that simply worked better at night and were staying up to deliver work, but then struggling to get in for 9am. Finding and retaining tech talent, especially talent that aligns with your company values and mission, it challenging enough in the North West, so we decided to adapt our working practices.

We quickly discovered that this needed structure and accountability, implementing regular touchpoints with line managers and clear expectations on work that was to be delivered for those working from home, as well as well-communicated working hours for those starting earlier/ later than the rest of the team.

Another challenge was making it clear that flexible working wasn’t a free-for-all. A process for agreeing it was set in place, from requesting work from home days to longer-term arrangements. We even embedded flexible working in our recruitment strategy, so that trust and process was there from the start.

Two years down the line, we’re still refining our approach, for example by appointing an Operations Manager to be the constant in-office point of contact for clients. But we are already feeling the benefit of letting go of the traditional nine to five, office-based model. Contrary to our fears people would feel isolated or we’d become fragmented and lose our sense of being a team working towards a common goal, our performance as a business has improved.

This is down to regular touchpoints, for example stand ups every Monday and Friday that everyone attends either in person or dials into via Slack. Even our consultants are involved! We arrange team socials regularly to bring people together to have fun and bond, as well as away days and round table sessions focused on company goals and opportunities.

It’s been a learning curve, but well-managed flexible working means that our team is now more motivated, productive and united than ever.”

 

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Paul Stephen, chief executive officer, Sagittarius

We have always had a very 'grown up' approach to working hours and when we were small that was very easy to do. We knew everyone, we were all in one office and it was very easy to ensure nobody took advantage. Everyone knew what was expected of them. 

As we have now grown to 5 offices in 3 countries, even if we are ‘in the office’ we aren't necessarily in the same office anyway. However, to 'set expectations' we’ve had to create more formal rules and guidelines. 

Rather than allow complete flexibility, we have defined 6 core hours of the working day where we expect someone to be working and the other 2 hours can be worked to suit your needs. This ensures enough overlap between colleagues and the various time zones we have to cater for. We also allow working from home for 'no reason' but again to set expectations, we have set a maximum of 5 days per month. 

The net result of this flexibility has seen zero impact on productivity and the reality is hardly anyone works from home more than a day or two a month. So, while as an employer we might have been worried about people working from home having a negative impact, the fact that our team love it has to be considered a positive impact. 

Key areas that are less easy to measure are leadership and team culture. We do observe that it is the leaders who probably find it the most difficult to lead from home. Perhaps it is beautifully human that in order to lead facetime is key. We find our leaders go out of their way to spend time in the numerous offices. Company culture is something we have to work extra hard on too. As well as doing lots of inter-company events we deliberately ensure that our client teams (pods) are multi-office and multi-national so that no single office ends up a silo.

Ultimately, successful flexible working comes down to integrity and trust. If you don’t feel you can trust your team then you probably need to fix that first.

Featured by The Drum

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